Contextual Brand Safety: Now What?

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by John Montgomery, global executive vice president, brand safety, at GroupM.

On Feb. 9, The Times, one of oldest and most venerable newspapers in the world, ran a story titled “Big brands fund terror.” It dedicated an additional four-page spread to the subject of brands’ advertising funding inappropriate and illegal activities on YouTube. Brands were named.

Did clients overreact to the situation by pausing advertising on YouTube? When your brand, the cornerstone of your offering and most precious asset, is in danger of being called out in the mainstream press, it seems more than sensible to pause advertising on YouTube until you understand the risk. So, no, clients were right to be cautious. The risks of reputational damage far outweigh the risk of underdelivering on a campaign for most brands.

While most clients are carefully considering dipping their toe back into the water using enhanced tools to keep their brands safer, some clients will simply reason that even the smallest risk is not worth taking, and they will seek audience reach in safer places.

Google’s Response

Any response would rarely be deemed good enough when reacting to a crisis like this. Given that Google had to absorb the situation, respond at a global level and revert with tangible solutions, I think that it did a pretty good job.

However, the industry must keep up the pressure on solutions – this problem is far from over.

Did Google go far enough? Not by a long chalk. However one may rationalize the difficulty in managing the stupefying levels of uploads that Google processes every minute, it is still Google’s responsibility to keep advertisers safe on its platform. The industry expects Google to use its massive resources and technical acumen to tackle this problem. We may intellectualize that there is no such thing as 100% assurance on an uncurated social platform like YouTube, but brands expect a zero-tolerance approach to contextual brand safety.

Google and the other social media platforms should now let third-party measurement accompany ads onto their platforms to allow marketers to block ads from appearing with inappropriate content. Third-party technologies may not be perfect, particularly when it comes to video, but social media partners must realize that the industry will only be truly satisfied that we are doing what we can to detect and avoid inappropriate content if brand safety measurement is driven by objective, external verification companies. Surely if we open-source the challenge and work on a solution together, we will devise a better solution, faster – and with industry buy-in.

Other Uncurated Social Networks

The risk around contextual brand safety is not confined to GDN or YouTube. Any social network that allows users to upload uncurated social content has limited control of what appears on its platform. Some, like YouTube, may be deemed riskier because advertising can share the same screen as the inappropriate content, while others may be considered less harmful because the ads appear on the screen preceding or immediately following.

However, there is a growing level of discomfort for a brand being associated with any form of undesirable content, and it is vital that platforms like Facebook work hard and fast to control fake news and undesirable content before they become the next target of a brand safety scandal.

It just takes one. The next question is how safe are brands on uncurated networks now that we have tighter controls in place? The answer is certainly “safer than before.” But, however close we get to “totally safe,” there will always be the smallest chance of an impression squeezing past the enhanced controls we have in place and appearing with or near inappropriate content. This is the innate nature of social platforms.

We have to balance that risk with the reward of using a cost-efficient reach platform like YouTube or Facebook and take careful action based on our conclusion.

Follow John Montgomery (@taxidodger), GroupM (@GroupMWorldwide) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Well said John.
    The only question I would like Google to answer is why they refuse to integrate pre-bid Brand Safety by Peer39. It’s integrated into every other major DSP in the market, and yet none of them can access YouTube. If they are serious about fixing the situation, allow your customers the tools needed to block bids on unwanted content. If you are a client who sees this as a problem, ask your Google rep to integrate these tools.

  2. Mike Donahue

    The Good Ship Brand Safety is in good hands with you at the tiller.
    That’s my story, and everyone else’s,
    and we’re stickin’ to it.