Ad safety revelations should be a wake-up call for brands, not just Google

While Google must do more to police the content published on its site, the ad safety issue should also usher in a new era that sees marketers ask more questions about digital.

Well, that all escalated very quickly. What had been simmering since a February investigation by The Times found Waitrose and Mercedes among the brands sharing a screen with pornographers, white supremacists and other undesirables has boiled over in the past 10 days.

First, Sir Martin Sorrell called out Google UK boss Ronan Harris on stage in front of the ad industry at an IPA event for not fronting up and taking responsibility for the content published on its platform. Then Harris came out in Google’s defence, telling Marketing Week in an interview that it is doing what it can but solving the issue is “not just its job”.

Google was then summoned by ministers on Friday (17 March) after another The Times investigation found that government-funded campaigns were being placed next to content from extremists.

Yet Google’s bad day did not stop with the ire and indignation of ministers, however. The dressing down was accompanied by possibly an even greater threat  – the loss of advertising money.

Brands, agencies and the government are pulling advertising; Channel 4, Marks & Spencer, L’Oreal and The Guardian definitely among them and Sky, HSBC and McDonald’s reportedly so. The UK arm of media buying group Havas has said it will stop spending its clients’ budgets on Google platforms and although its French parent says it will not follow suit, it still amounts to a significant chunk of money.

Meanwhile, the advertising body ISBA continued to do the job it should Friday – being a right royal pain in the arse, in a good way, on behalf of its big spending members – demanding Google review its controls.

We’ve been almost here before. There was a little flurry of half-hearted protests by brands following the February story. A few brands doing what the cynical might describe as posturing, pulling spend for a couple of days before seemingly carrying on regardless, presumably safe in the knowledge that the internet was now cured of all its ills.

We’re in a different place now. It’s more than the tough talk of trade bodies and a few dissenting but soon quiet voices. Google knows this. It promised a lot more in the hours following the report Friday than it had even hinted at before, saying there would be a “thorough review of policies and controls”.

Quite what that review will result is in unclear as yet. ISBA is calling for a change in policy that will ensure advertising does not appear next to content Google “cannot guarantee is safe”. That seems like the least Google could do.

Such a move is unlikely to be a silver bullet solution to ensuring total brand safety. That is almost impossible given the sprawling nature of the internet, the amount of user-generated content and the views of the minority that use it to spread their hate. But given the shadow Google casts over the ecosystem it has to take responsibility and act.

Despite the sometimes questionable editorial lines taken by newspapers and some of the rather choice comments left next to content, newspapers are entirely responsible for the content they publish and in the main accept that responsibility. It is the same for radio, cinema and television; brands know by and large where and when they will be seen and in turn what they will be associated with.

Google, alongside many others at the vanguard of the digital revolution, has looked upon itself and its role in exalted terms, painting a utopian vision of Google as conduit for the democratisation of information. It can and must do much more and soon.

So must brands. As much as there needs to be more safeguards, systems and controls, this past week should act as a wake up call for marketers. The issue of brand safety online is not new but it took a front page splash in The Times for marketers to take notice and action. Blinded by promises of cost efficiency – low price at scale campaigns with eyeballs a plenty – not enough honest questions were asked by brands or agencies. The answer is not just to pull money, though that at least helps sharpen the mind and actions of Google. These revelations should also be a sobering experience for brands dizzy on the promise of digital.

Brand safety should be only one of several questions being asked about digital. The rallying calls of industry heavyweights such as Procter and Gamble’s Marc Pritchard and Unilever’s Keith Weed on fraud, viewability and measurement need to be given even more weight by more questioning voices.

The digital duopoly of Google and Facebook have proven themselves capable of listening and at least committing to action, Google in the brand safety cause and Facebook in agreeing to adopt Media Ratings Council standards on viewability after admitting it wildly overstated the time people spent watching videos on its site. It’s not just about turning the screw and switching money, it’s about asking more questions and demanding more answers. Only then will we be able to have a more open and transparent relationship. And we’re still far from there yet.