We need a joined up approach to ad misplacement

Right message, right person, right time. It’s an advertising truism that has survived the test of the years. Despite media having moved on significantly since it was coined, I’ve seen it mentioned time and time again in digital presentations. However, in many ways there could be something missing, or at least lost within it. It has always been important to brands for their ads to appear in the right context, but this is becoming increasingly hard for them to control in what has almost become a cliche to describe as a fragmented digital ecosystem. 


The main problem the industry has highlighted is in display. There have been numerous examples over the last few years of ads appearing next to illegal or inappropriate content, as you may have heard. The most recent was a few months ago when Nissan and Nationwide, amongst others, pulled their advertising from Facebook due to their display ads appearing next to  ‘grossly offensive’ content on various Facebook pages. After Marks & Spencer and Sky also pulled their advertising Facebook announced on Friday it would put in place some in-house controls to try to tackle the issue. This is a good illustration both of the problem and of how seriously major advertisers take the issue. It is also an example of how quickly an issue can develop in the world of real time social media. Looking forward  advertisers will need some long term reassurance that their ads will not appear against inappropriate content in the social media space.
Going back a decade or two, this problem really didn’t exist in the way it does now. Although there will always have been exceptions, an advertiser could be much more confident that an ad appearing in a newspaper or on TV wouldn’t run alongside inappropriate TV programming or editorial content. Media planners, commercial and editorial staff would certainly have found out quickly if it did, and processes and judgement would have prevented it recurring. 
However, as online started to evolve, I remember when I was working for the digital arm of a newspaper group the editorial team got very concerned about installing Google’s contextual advertising product (Adsense for Content) on pages with news editorial. This technology scans pages for relevant keywords and serves contextually relevant ads onto the page. One of the fears was that fairly innocuous ads in the wrong context could cause great offence alongside, for example, a breaking news tragedy. Various precautionary measures could, though, be put in place and Google allowed the screening out of various verticals which could be customised for the media owner. In addition to standard exclusions around such categories as porn, hate or violence, publishers could add their own keywords. 
With the advent of ad networks an industry solution was needed. A problem was that many ad networks would aggregate spare media inventory that publishers couldn’t sell in order to sell it on more cheaply to advertisers. A significant amount of this was served ‘blind’ (meaning the advertiser didn’t know on which sites it would appear). This was commercially attractive to the media owner, of course, as well as the cost focussed advertisers who hadn’t thought through the implications or were too junior to be overly concerned. A joint industry initiative, the Internet Advertising Sales House (IASH), was set up in 2005 as a practical solution – ad networks, sales houses and publishers had to sign up to certain standards and controls and could be expelled for not adhering to them properly. In 2008 this happened very publicly to 24/7 Real Media. The process behind the scheme worked well enough but was quite labour-intensive, requiring companies that signed up to submit data such as the sites they ran ads on. 
Where this history lesson on advertising controls is leading us is to the current initiative of the Digital Trading Standards Group, set up by all relevant organisations in the online display trading ecosystem, from publishers to advertisers. The initiative launched in 2011 and brings views on best practice up to date with the way the display landscape has evolved. This evolution into complexity can be readily seen from any variety of the well known display and data ecosystem charts that I’m sure will be familiar to anyone who has had even cursory involvement with digital media or advertising over the last year or two.
At its heart is a concept similar to that of IASH. It states that advertisers should be confident enough to be able to prevent their ads appearing next to illegal or inappropriate content. This can be broken down fairly simply into the two categories of illegal content (such as illegal download sites, which it is assumed all brands would deem inappropriate), or content inappropriate for a particular brand (which will vary from advertiser to advertiser). An example of the latter category might be that that a gaming brand could be more relaxed about appearing on sites with adult related content than would an advertiser for baby products. 
For this to work there was a realisation that nowadays the process associated with IASH needed to be replaced with principles reflecting the data and inventory trading within the display market and the numerous players now part of it. Nine types of company, for example, have been identified, from advertiser to publisher, including dsps, ssps and more traditional ad networks. If an ad misplacement problem is identified there needs to be a process for taking the ads down promptly, and a critical mass of participants needs to be signed up to it. With the market as fluid as described above, there isn’t really another way it can work. 
Some tech companies have been reluctant to sign up. However, internal processes relating to ad misplacement will take them only so far. I’ll wager that without broader industry agreement this is likely to be a recurring problem which, with repeated news coverage, has the potential to appear a significant flaw in their ad product’s value proposition. Who knows, that may even have the potential to affect their share price. 
Think what that data ecosystem chart will look like in a few years’ time, with even more start-ups exploiting new technologies, data use and platforms. Strong working relationships between the different trade bodies are, of course, well established, and this industry example is more the exception than the rule. It is inevitable that bodies representing different constituencies will not always see eye to eye. However, as we head into the future, if the industry is to resolve what are likely to be an increasing number of issues arising from converged media and data use, it will need the full engagement and a joined up approach from all participants. 

Alex Tait is group head of ecommerce at Arcadia Group


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