The dust has largely settled after March’s brand safety scandal – however the problem hasn’t gone away. Although some brands are reported to have returned to Google advertising by May, others – including Pepsi, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer – were still waiting for solid guarantees from Google over and above what has already been promised.
The changes Google says it has already taken to improve brand safety haven’t been bedded in, aren’t sufficient for some brands, and still lack a vital component – third party verification. Google has promised to deliver such verification in the future, but before it’s implemented, marketers refusing to risk their brand reputation are opting for ad providers who can make promises on where their ads will appear as well as delivering third party verified monitoring and reporting on where ad creative actually did appear.
Third party monitoring, reporting and verification is imperative, of course, but it can really only help brands, publishers and ad tech companies to react to any concerning ad placement. Many brands would prefer a zero tolerance for any ad misplacement rather than an acceptance that misplacement will happen from time to time. Those marketers are likely to be the ones who focus their ad buying and planning on ad campaigns bought directly from ad inventory providers or, at very least, non-blind programmatic ad campaigns.
An incredibly insightful analysis by MediaPost’s Sean Hargrave identified this very issue. He suggested a correlation between the mere one in four media buyers who feel informed of their ad suppliers’ brand safety measures and the 28% who say they know where all their ads are going. He recognized quite reasonably that these buyers most likely focus on direct, non-blind programmatic buys. That means that they receive assurances of the quality of the ads. However, lumping blame on the blind buys alone fails to consider how some of the most sophisticated targeting technologies are the contemporary causes of even more catastrophically compromised ad placement.
Consider the Context
In fact, a Financial Times’ report on the aftermath of the scandal serves as a perfect case study. Their journalists’ research identified ads for Huawei, wix and even the Advertising Week Europe event displayed before a YouTube video from a UK-banned preacher. My strong hunch is that the European technology correspondent was researching those brands online for that article, other articles or other valid reasons, and the ads were behaviourally or re-targeted.
This one instance shows how dangerous it is for ad campaigns to rely on behaviourally and retargeting technology in isolation. They can be great at targeting brands’ biggest and established fans, but if those very consumers are presented with targeted ads for their favorite brands whilst browsing shocking content – which they are more likely to do because they fear it than agreement with it – then the damage is huge. Yes, that consumer might well be the right fit for the brand’s latest product. But that won’t matter if they are connecting within the most brand-damaging environment and state-of-mind. Here, the fundamental failure is one of context. Ad campaigns that do not include analysis and targeting of ad campaigns to the context of the content will always be at far higher risk of damaging their brand.
Need to Know
Being transparent about the publications which display campaigns’ ad creative, and backing that up with brand safety technology as well as independent third-party monitoring are essential qualities of any decent ad supplier. Yet even the most premium, brand safe media titles can carry compromising content. They have to. There are bad things in the world that people have a right to know. That’s why assessment of context – both its safety and relevance to campaigns – must be at a granular level, assessing not just the articles, but the keywords and phrases used within those articles.
Let’s be clear: categorization of content into buckets for advertisers to choose where to advertise is not contextual targeting. Content categorization alone is wildly insufficient, especially when users categorize their own content. Extremists don’t consider themselves “extremists”, so they might categorize revolting content as “current affairs”, “culture”, or “sex and relationships”. True contextual targeting understands the actual words used to identify content as both relevant and brand safe for advertisers.
Get the Signals Straight
Incorporating contextual does not mean abandoning other forms of targeting, such as behaviorally, demographic, or re-targeting, even when purchasing ads programmatically. There’s great ad tech available programmatically that can combine contextual signals with audience data to target campaigns to relevant consumers in brand safe environments. That said, pure reliance on computers to assess both audience and contextual appropriateness for ads will always be more risky than involving humans, even with the introduction of artificial intelligence. Ad buyers and planners know this, as nearly three-quarters of them (74.2%) say it’s more difficult to ensure brand safe environments when buying programmatically on open exchanges.
Hence managing brand safety must involve human beings. Computers just cannot match our abilities to identify the contextual appropriateness and relevance of content for advertisers. People are needed to vet publishers’ operations and content to ensure they meet advertisers’ stated quality standards. They’re needed to monitor and react to the news agenda which may introduce brand damaging content into campaigns. People are needed to operate the targeting and brand safety tech and to make sure things are going right for advertisers, publishers and consumers. Of course some ad providers rely on consumers rather than professionals to perform such functions. Not only is that an abdication of responsibility, but the horse has bolted by that point.
Doug Stevenson is the Co-CEO of contextual advertising platform Vibrant Media, and based in San Francisco. As the co-founder of Vibrant, Doug has co-led the company’s expansion with Craig Gooding from when the company began operations in 2000. Doug was awarded ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ from Ernst and Young and was a Distinguished Honoree for the International Business Awards, Executive of the Year in North America. Prior to founding Vibrant, Doug worked at AOL Europe as Head of E-commerce and has 25 years of publishing, media and Internet experience with AOL, CompuServe, Netscape, Haymarket Publishing, and BBC Magazines/Redwood Publishing.