ISBA calls for independent regulation of content on Facebook and Google

The UK advertising body is advocating a system of self-regulation that would see an independent oversight body setup to monitor and regulate content appearing on digital platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to offer marketers greater confidence that advertising will not appear next to inappropriate content.

ISBA wants Google and Facebook to agree to have their efforts to monitor content on their networks independently verified so that marketers can have greater confidence that advertising will not appear next to inappropriate content.

The “voice of UK advertisers” wants to see an independent body established to oversee content across the all major platforms. Facebook and Google account for almost two-thirds (60.8%) of the UK digital ad market, according to eMarketer.

Google and Facebook in particular have been rocked by a series of high-profile scandals, with branded content and advertising appearing next to objectionable content. In Google’s case, this led to several advertisers pulling or pausing spend.

Questions have also been raised about when certain public figures or organisations should be banned from digital platforms, most notably in the US where debate has raged over whether conspiracy theorist website InfoWars should be barred.

READ MORE: Google under fire as brands pull advertising and ad industry demands action

They have also come under pressure from lawmakers and politicians who want to see statutory regulation of the platform. For example, Ofcom chief executive Sharon White recently proposed regulating the duo in the same way as the mobile and broadband industry, which would see its content removal processes overseen by a statutory body.

ISBA is proposing a self-regulatory solution to its members’ concerns. It wants a set of common principles and a code of conduct agreed, as well as a common framework for acceptable content policies that would work globally and translate locally.

To oversee this, it is calling for independent verification of social platforms’ processes for detection, monitoring and removal of inappropriate content. This work would need to be certified by an audit, and include an independent arbiter for appeals and audited disclosure and transparency reporting of complaint handling.

It would be funded by money drawn from a voluntary levy, in a similar manner to self-regulatory body the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). A regulatory back-stop is also proposed, similar to how Ofcom backs the ASA.

Advertisers are owed a full and accurate account of digital platforms’ content policies and need to feel confident that they are being well enforced.

Phil Smith, ISBA

Phil Smith, ISBA director general, says with the spectre of statutory regulation hanging over the platforms, they should grasp the opportunity “to take the initiative and to demonstrate through their own action that more can be done through independent industry self-regulation”.

“It would be of huge value to the reputations of the platforms themselves if they were able to externalise some of these judgement calls they’re having to make privately and independently themselves,” he tells Marketing Week.

The proposed system would, in turn, offer advertisers the confidence that issues are being dealt with. “Our view has always been that advertisers are not there to dictate a content policy to a platform or a media supplier. We’d never tell a newspaper what headline to run. But we do think that advertisers are owed a full and accurate account of what those content policies are and need to feel confident that they are being well enforced,” adds Smith.

Although such a framework could be trialled in the UK, its ultimate success is reliant on it being global in scope. ISBA has shared its proposals with the World Federation of Advertisers, although Smith acknowledges it is early days and that discussions are in their infancy.

“Let’s say we’re on the journey,” he explains. “The early conversations were less receptive than more recent conversations. I’d still say we have fundamental points of disagreement. I wouldn’t claim that this is an idea that has embedded and taken root.”

Despite this, he wants to see the major players get together to “talk about what this might look like within a 12-month time frame”.

Tackling media transparency

The brand safety scandal dominated Smith’s first year as ISBA’s director general but it has been an eventful two years in charge, with a series of significant events such as the introduction of General Data Protection Regulation and questions around media buying transparency challenging its members.

ISBA has also been on the front foot, launching several initiatives. One, its revised ‘Media Framework’ – a contract for advertisers to use in negotiations with media agencies in light of concerns over transparency in media buying – was met with criticism from media consultancy Ebiquity, which claimed the terms in the revised framework were less favourable to advertisers. It was also reported US trade body the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) had reservations.

READ MORE: Big brands take more collaborative approach to agency contracts

Smith says “clarifications” are included in the most recent version that, he claims, “have satisfied those who have concerns”. He admits there were elements of the framework that could have been better.

“One big, stand-back observation was we probably under-estimated just what a big, international shadow the framework cast,” he says. “To some extent, we think the criticism we got was salutary and made us think about some of those international implications.”

Contracts between advertisers and agencies are only one element to the framework, he says, with “commoditisation” the big concern.

“The central challenge we’re seeking to address is a pattern in which there has been a spiralling down of client fees, with some agencies undercutting each other and procurement having a role to play as well, and with a growing proportion of agency media money flowing from the supply side,” he states.

“That’s not in any way illegal, in this country at least. But it’s created a less than sustainable set of relationships, with over-frequent pitch cycles and commoditisation of the media agency world.”

Putting the focus on effectiveness not efficiency

Shifting the focus from cost efficiency to effectiveness is also a priority for ISBA, leading to a partnership with Ebiquity that will see the launch of a number of projects designed to improve industry standards around effectiveness and attribution.

Smith says “the changing landscape” ushered in by increased use of digital media and data means now is a good time to assess what marketing effectiveness is and how it’s changed.

There are a lot of people talk about effectiveness in ROI at the moment but many of them have a bit of a vested interest in one particular type of outcome.

Phil Smith, ISBA

“There are more ways of doing business now that are coming through. We have more companies and members coming up that have got digital-first backgrounds. We have more and more of a schism between those who are response-driven in their thinking and those who are brand-driven,” he explains.

READ MORE: Brands shift marketing effectiveness focus from justification to learning

“We felt that there was a real need for some work to sit alongside and complement that which already exists in the industry. I’ve brought a group of our members together; and when you hear a discussion between eBay and Diageo on the subject, it’s a really interesting meeting of the minds.

“We are very keen to bring in partners, and others, who can really help us to create an advertiser-driven view of how best to think about effectiveness in ROI. There are a lot of people talk about effectiveness in ROI at the moment but many of them have a bit of a vested interest in one particular type of outcome.”