The Industry needs to act together to fix brand safety

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Charlie Smith, UK MD at Blis, argues that when it comes to brand safety, advertising can’t survive on good intentions alone. If anyone was in any doubt about the seriousness of the brand safety issue, yesterday’s news that some of the world biggest agency groups had come together to form the The Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB) should make them think again. The companies – including Dentsu Aegis Network, GroupM, Havas Media, Horizon Media, IPG Mediabrands, MDC Partners, Omnicom Media Group, and Publicis Media – have pledged to work together to prevent ads from appearing in unsafe environments.

The move comes after a series of scandals earlier in the year: barely two days into the new year YouTuber Logan Paul hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, after uploading a disturbing video of a suicide victim on the foothills of Mount Fuji.

Back in February, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, Keith Weed threatened to pull its advertising from online platforms such as Google and Facebook as they ‘create division’; amounting to a third of its global £6.8bn ad spend. These developments come as technology companies continue to face mounting criticism for failing to protect their consumers from inappropriate content.

No one said brand safety was easy, and it will take more than discussing its negative impact on the industry at conferences to alleviate what has become an endemic, industry-wide issue for tech providers, agencies and brands alike. In 2018, actions will speak louder than words.

Restoring trust

Facebook kicked off the year by announcing that it would shift newsfeeds away from brand and media posts. The company is instead prioritising posts from users’ friends and family, with items such as news stories and posts from businesses featuring less prominently.

Bowing to mounting pressures, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg indicated that Facebook hoped to focus more on the personal connections between individuals. Clearly, this suggests that tech companies need to focus their efforts on restoring trust.

Let’s be clear: this is no small issue. A recent study by Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law revealed a significant “trust deficit” for tech firms and the benefits of innovation. According to the research, users in the UK, France and the US do not feel they can fully trust digital companies, and are particularly concerned about privacy and security issues.

In an era of fake news and toxic publishers, now more than ever we need a digital world that inspires confidence. This will require more than pointing the finger elsewhere: the onus is on us in the tech industry to challenge negative perceptions, and fast, as concerns around brand safety are only rising industry-wide and will hit fever pitch without timely intervention.

We need specific measures to improve trust in the ecosystem, tackling persistent issues of publisher quality, ad fraud, measurement and data privacy. Unscrupulous publishers have stained the industry and the only way to combat this is to cut them out of our conversations.

Ultimately, you need a range of technologies to ensure brand safety and mitigate the risks that a brand may face in the digital supply chain. Whitelisting can certainly be effective in mobile within apps, where you have specific bundle IDs you can use. One of the biggest challenges you have with the web however, is the ‘spoofing’ of domains. To combat this issue, marketers need to invest in pre-bid technology that takes that URL and reads the page to make sure it’s valid and to make sure it’s on the right domain.

Risks and benefits

Ultimately, programmatic is not a cause for brand safety malpractice; it’s a method of trading which has offered brands reach and efficiency of buying. Crucially, brand safety has primarily become an issue outside of programmatic. Facebook and YouTube’s ‘closed’ ecosystems have given rise to an abundance of user-generated content which is currently unavailable for ‘open’ real-time bidding auctions. Publishers need to do much more to monitor the content within which they sell advertising, while brands need to fully understand the risks that go with the benefits of advertising on these platforms.

The Facebook-Google duopoly captured 84 per cent of global digital ad spend in 2017. However, these platforms are incredibly difficult to police, and the risks of a brand’s ads being seen alongside inappropriate content are far greater. YouTube has responded by recently announcing that it is going to manually verify its preferred programme, which is a step in the right direction.

Much remains to be done, however, for the likes of other ad tech giants. Just yesterday, the House of Lords published a report attributing a lack of choice in the digital media industry to Facebook and Google’s dominance, with this lack of choice fuelling issues of fairness, transparency and brand safety more widely.

Further steps include working more with premium SSPs and registering with key schemes and certifications like the IAB Gold Standard. Marketers should also ensure that the vendors they work with have been verified by third parties such as the JICWEBS Good Practice Principles which aim to significantly reduce the risk of ad misplacement on digital media properties and protect the integrity of digital advertising. At the level of individual companies, businesses will need to ensure their own internal practices offer only the safest inventory.

Not if but when

One thing is certain: all eyes in the adtech space will be on brand safety in 2018. If cases like Logan Paul’s are anything to go by, it’s not a question of if there will be another scandal, but when. But all is by no means lost. There’s no such thing as a perfect strategy, but the time is without doubt now for brands, agencies and tech providers to take action to shield themselves from harming their reputation, whether with new tech, or new ways of looking at old solutions. Looking into 2018, it’s time to finally rebuild trust in digital advertising rather than merely make a it a trending topic.

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