Ritson: The brand safety scandal is no one’s fault but Google’s

There can be no justification for advertising funding abhorrent organisations, even if marketers were hunting for the lowest possible price for their programmatic advertising.


Two months ago most marketers would have struggled to explain what ‘brand safety’ was, let alone incorporate it into their communications planning. But barely seven weeks later, it has risen from relative anonymity to the very top of the marketing totem pole for almost every major brand on the planet.

Like me, you were probably vaguely aware of the original article in The Times that claimed ‘Big brands fund terror through online adverts’ and the subsequent response, particularly of Jaguar Land Rover, which was the first major advertiser to pull all their digital advertising in the UK as a result of brand safety concerns. But things quietened down and the issue appeared to fade from the marketing agenda.

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

Then, less than two weeks ago, we were confronted with a growing array of bizarrely juxtaposed advertising relationships. It’s hard to know which media placement made the least sense. Was it the idea that Marie Curie was funding and appearing alongside a Neo-Nazi group? Maybe it was the Guardian’s online membership drive being featured on a video for bearded jihadi warriors. Or perhaps it was an ad for Scottish tourism appearing alongside videos for white supremacy. Time and again the most unimpeachable, familiar brands suddenly became associated with unmentionable hate groups.

A digital world detached from reality

But what has proven more disarming is the response from most of the marketing community and the fallout from the current brand safety crisis. Increasingly, living in a special digital world detached from consumer reality and unaccustomed to any form of critical assessment, many digital marketers took to social media to point out that this was as much the fault of advertisers as it was the poor unfortunates at Google.

Daniel Gilbert, the CEO of Brainlabs, typified the response with an article for Campaign that opened with: “The recent blame game where Google is the ‘big baddie’ is pure deflection in an attempt to hide the real truth – that media agencies and advertisers don’t understand how to run effective ad campaigns on Google’s platform”.

Wayne Blodwell – the CEO of The Programmatic Advisory – was equally dismissive of Google’s culpability. “Advertisers should stop pointing all of the blame at YouTube and become more accountable,” he concluded.

Blaming the customer for brand safety issues isn’t just stupid, it runs directly against one of the core tenets of marketing. While it’s fair to point out that many of the clients affected were clearly hunting for the lowest possible CPM and therefore not on top of their game, it’s unfair to suggest that this somehow justified their advertising appearing in such intolerable media contexts and funding such abhorrent organisations.

Other, equally dismissive responses to the brand safety scandal acknowledged that the issue was a problem but queried whether it was anything other than a tiny, negligible issue for advertisers. Google EMEA boss Matt Brittin initially tried this line of argument at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London 10 days ago.

Brittin apologised for the brand safety issues that Google had created but then observed: “In general I’ve found that it has been a handful of impressions and pennies not pounds.”

It was a line repeated by several other marketers last week with various estimates reducing the proportion of unsafe material to fractions of a decimal point. That jars significantly with independent analysis by Integral Ad Science (IAS), which estimates that around 8% of all digital display advertising and 11% of digital video had the potential for brand risk in H1 2016.

brand risk

That risk (as shown above) is variously made up of content associated with pornography, hate speech, violence and illegal drug consumption. If you listen to the Google apologists the odds of an adverse incident of brand risk appear about the same as a lightning strike. If you believe the IAS report it is more akin to Russian Roulette, and you play the game every time your ad is served. Probably somewhere between these two extremes lies the true proportion, but that’s enough risk to keep even the most cock-sure brand manager awake at night.

Other responses to the brand safety saga pointed to a dark conspiracy by traditional media outlets, and particularly the news media, to exaggerate the crisis in a nefarious attempt to damage Google’s advertising credentials and rescue their own flagging revenues. With headlines like the Daily Mail’s ‘Google – The Terrorist’s Friend’, it was clear many tabloid newspapers were going in egregiously hard last week.

How big an issue is brand safety?

It’s a matter of perspective whether this negative coverage was an explicit attempt by the news media to undermine their now dominant digital rivals or the stirring of sleeping giants that have sat on their respective hands for too long and allowed digital media to play fast and loose with the truth at their own commercial expense.

Whichever it is, Google had become accustomed to winning massive market share with barely a whimper from its media rivals. This sudden eruption of hostilities, the vehemence of the attacks and the apparent damage done to both its revenue stream and share price must have taken the search giant by surprise. One of the few disadvantages of being part of a duopoly is that your competitive zeal and ability to fight back gradually dull. Perhaps we saw some of that duopolistic lethargy on display last week as various Google executives appeared genuinely bemused at the crisis that unfolded around them.

Brand safety is not an excuse to beat up Google or a tiny issue exaggerated by media rivals; it’s a massively unacceptable contradiction to corporate social responsibility and the whole notion of purpose-led brand management.

Despite the naysayers, this is clearly not a crisis created by traditional media or one that has been exaggerated to enable clients to get better terms from Google. Cynics might question the veracity of brand safety but the issue is a genuine one and not a gambit being used to restore balance to the media playing field. Advertisers really are paranoid about this kind of stuff. To understand why, indulge me with a story from my dim and distant past.

I once worked with the partner responsible for marketing at a large consulting firm. We had flown to Miami for a training programme and as we walked through the airport he spied a homeless man carrying his possessions around in a large paper bag. Without hesitation, the consultant strode purposefully across the airport and offered the man a crisp $20 note.

An exchange took place and seconds later the homeless man was on his way with a broad, toothless smile plastered across his face and his possessions under his arm. The consultant was back at my side clutching the paper bag which, I realised, bore the name of his firm in bold blue letters across both sides. Far from a sudden injection of humanity or pathos, the consultant had been appalled at the damage that this branded bag might have on his firm’s reputation and acted accordingly.

At the time, I found the exchange bizarre and curiously distasteful. But it’s an accurate reflection of how most advertisers, especially those in direct control of a brand, feel about any inconsistencies or contradictions in their brand’s public presentation. If marketers are content to spend millions to protect the reputation of their brands and promote their social responsibilities to all and sundry they are also, by the same logic, likely to go to equally extreme lengths to avoid any inappropriate associations or connections in the way their brand appears.

Brand safety is not an excuse to beat up Google or a tiny issue that has been exaggerated by media rivals; it’s a massively unacceptable contradiction to corporate social responsibility and the whole notion of purpose-led brand management. The fact that the media will now shine a light on any and all incidences of brand safety certainly exacerbates the issue, but it did not create the crisis in the first place.

What this tells us about advertising in 2017

Ignoring the excuses then, what does the brand safety saga tell us about advertising in 2017? First, it confirms the fact that despite the shiny golden promises of programmatic it really does represent a black box of turds and spiders for many clients.

Despite repeated claims from independent sources that as much as 70% of all money invested in programmatic is going to various ticket punching agency commissions and not to media platforms. Despite estimates that put the proportion of bots being served ads in programmatic somewhere between 3% and 37%. Despite clearly not having a fucking clue where their advertising is going or who their marketing budgets are funding via programmatic media buying. Advertisers continue to invest more and more into programmatic in this country. The £2.7bn invested through programmatic in 2016 represented an increase of 44% over the previous year.

Secondly, it provides further evidence, if any were needed, that advertisers at even the biggest brands don’t actually know what their media money is doing. Things have become too complex, too fluid and too multi-dimensional for even the biggest brand managers to control.

This was apparent from the ANA report last year in which clients were portrayed as naïve, almost child-like figures who were wholly unaware of the “pervasive” transparency issues that surrounded them at any turn. It also emerged from the disarming honesty of Marc Pritchard, the chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble. He openly admitted that his agency had received rebated media as a result of making media purchases on his behalf but without his approval or awareness. And when he challenged his agency he was also unaware that the contract he had signed with them sanctioned such activity.

READ MORE: P&G’s Marc Pritchard has made the biggest marketing speech for 20 years

That same lack of knowledge and control was embarrassingly evident in the proud claims of L’Oréal UK CMO Hugh Pile. He claimed to be “very clear on where our media money was going” in an interview in The Drum on 7 March. But a week later the company was “horrified” and “unaware” that its latest campaign featuring Dame Helen Mirren and the Prince’s Trust featured alongside the message that gay people “were not born that way, but they will burn that way” from hate preacher Steven Anderson.

If the likes of P&G and L’Oréal are finding themselves out of step and out of their depth in the brave new world of digital media and programmatic, imagine the situation further down the big brand pecking order.

The brochures of the brave new world of digital media proclaim real-time efficiencies, artificial intelligence and the ability to engage with consumers globally. But the reality that is emerging from the transparency issue, programmatic murkiness and the growing spectre of brand risk is about as far from this idealistic panacea as its possible to imagine.

Digital marketers might contend that these are understandable issues for a new industry barely a decade in the making. But with 58% of UK advertising spend now devoted to digital media it seems a little late to be putting everything down to growing pains.



There are 13 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Pete Austin 29 Mar 2017

    I can totally see why brands object to their adverts appearing alongsize videos from genuinely “abhorrent organisations”, such as ISIS, neo-nazis or antifa. Google should allow brands to block them, though just taking the videos down seems simpler. But the number of these videos is a tiny percentage and the chance is seeing an offensive video accidentally must be miniscule . I’ve never done so. So it seems fake news more than a problem.

    The real issue is that there are lots of videos from non-mainstream political publishers – social justice warriors of the left and right (they *all* hate that term!) – who have outspoken and unusual views on life. I find them interesting, but from the comments, it’s clear that their videos annoy and get considered “abhorrent” by people who disagree politically, and I worry that the current furore is actually targeting these.

    So the real danger is that maybe non-mainstream politics is about to lose access to advertising revenue, especially if this happens in a non-balanced way (e.g. lefties loose funding while righties don’t, or vice-versa).

  2. Satish Pai 29 Mar 2017

    it does appear that their advertising is what keeps the CEOs & CMOs awake all night, given how stringent they are in demanding no ad is released without their approval or not adhering to their guidelines.
    Obviously this is therefore an equally important larger issue as Prof. Ritson argues. Within conventional media advertising in a pornographic tabloid is different from advertising in the Times as most CMOs know even though the readership is the converse of the rates charged.
    & If instead the marketing community is being blamed for this lapse (!!!) they should wrest back control & find a new model or medium (conventional mass media, or approaching reputable online publishers directly as traditionally was done by their agencies)
    … programmatic anyone?

  3. Paul Jones 29 Mar 2017

    Hi Pete,

    It’s not just affecting people who watch the videos though is it. What I (speaking as either a consumer or a marketer) feel angry about is that the brands whose advertising appears alongside these videos are effectively generating ad revenue for organisations such as ISIS. So you’re in a situation where consumer brand X is helping to fund ISIS. There can be no excuses for allowing that to happen

  4. malcolm wicks 29 Mar 2017

    Whichever way you look at it s key role of Marketing is to get their messages to their target market. Marketing people therefore need to be very precise about who their targets are and who they are not. This type of clear specification is how businesses buy the other services they need. The customer (Marketing) owns the purse and Google and agencies are only suppliers. Perhaps I need to say that again – Google and agencies are ONLY suppliers. If they can’t meet the requirements Marketing people will fire them and go elsewhere.

    As I learnt many years ago the one consistent thing about new technology is that it will inevitably disappoint. Never bet you job on it.

  5. Steve Jex 29 Mar 2017

    This is tricky because it involves someone setting themselves up as the arbiter on what is “acceptable” or “abhorrent” and so on. Some of the blame can be laid on Google but not all of it. When you place ads on the Google display Network you can be very specific about where your ads should NOT be shown, as well as where they should. If you don’t do the exclusions properly then don’t come crying when you get shown next to the big bad wolf.
    It’s not so easy of course, for videos. Someone might post a video of something awful, and give it an Alt Tag of something quite innocuous like “a lovely day out with the family.” YouTube doesn’t know any different – they haven’t quite got to the stage where they can tell what a video is about without actually watching it.

  6. dinger 29 Mar 2017

    is this the digital equivalent of guilt by association and the celebrity endorsement disaster, like seeing Ursain wearing Uggs – and where can I get that black box of turds and spiders…

  7. Zbiggy Ucinek 29 Mar 2017

    This is an issue I have been fighting against since I left the Corporate world in 2008. The majority of digital advertising is rotten to the core as exceptionally outlined by adcontrarianblogspot recently.

    When as an internet publisher, re Bullitthd.com we approached a so called reputable company to assist re advertising and they informed us they do not allow us to tell their customers where they are featured. WTF?

    Yes Google has a responsibility but let’s stop blaming the vehicle rather than those that fuel it. The useless Media companies and the lazy brand managers that neither provide value for money or even know where it is spent. And we wonder why Marketing has such a poor reputation in the C-Suite? Earn your money not expect it!

  8. Satish Pai 30 Mar 2017

    The un-intended outcome – a positive of this might be that Google & other sites start monitoring all the hateful vicious content posted and either rate them (warnings before you see the link) or even delete the ones from ISIS.
    Being hopeful here, but that would be one great outcome from this episode

  9. Karie Chan 31 Mar 2017

    I have read a few articles on this issue. However I could not see if those big brands who found their ads on inappropriate online content did implement the brand safety measures on DBM or AdWords such as sensitive content category exclusions, etc. In my experience, if you put proper content category exclusions, audience categories or blacklisting some URLs that are already notorious for distributing adult, gaming, political extremist, terror…etc., your sites will not appear on those content

  10. Shanghai61 3 Apr 2017

    The problem is, of course, that the whole system is totally out of control.

    5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every day. 300 hours of video are uploaded to it every minute. Nobody can possibly know what all that content is. Not even YouTube itself.

    Couple that with a media planning and buying function that’s become increasingly automated and software reliant, and there is nobody making sensible decisions about appropriate placement or context. At least, not until the shit hit the fan and now there’s utter panic .

    The outcome was entirely predictable to any thinking person. But not to the algorithms, it seems.

  11. Babar Khan Javed 5 Apr 2017

    If the advertisers boycotting YouTube and Google weren’t hopelessly inept in digital advertising, then they would know the simple tweaks that anyone can do to filter out YouTube channels and GDN Publishers that are “extremist”. The most simple four step guide can be found here: https://e27.co/protect-brand-extremist-content-4-steps-20170405/

  12. Neil Anderson 8 Apr 2017

    Completely agree. No excuses.

  13. Neil Anderson 8 Apr 2017

    Just like google’s unwillingness to pay an ethical amount of tax, programmatic is another example of how Google is clearly more powerful than western governments in many ways. Google are quite literally, unable to control the monster they’ve created. It ran out the door and out of sight years ago.
    Banning the purchase of programmatic in responsible nations would be a great step forward. I bet then google might consider investing in the staff and technology required to certify that clients funds are not being given to such organisations.
    Trying to get any support out of google is a nightmare at the best of times. If they won’t pay ethical levels of tax, and can’t control their tech, how can we trust them with the awesome things in the pipeline that genuinely could help humanity e.g. Driverless cars.

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