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.