My advice to Google and Facebook on brand safety

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What do buzzwords and populism have to do with one other?

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard the latest buzzword, “brand safety,” as major advertisers like Johnson & Johnson, AT&T, Verizon and hundreds of others have pulled their advertising from YouTube and Google Display Network because it was showing up next to hate-promoting videos. We also recently saw major advertisers pull out of traditional television spots during “The O’Reilly Factor” as its eponymous host faced controversial allegations of sexual misconduct.

While RBC Capital analysts believe the financial effect to Google will be a minimal 1.7 percent because of Google’s dominance of search, Bill O’Reilly no longer has a job, and brand safety is a serious issue that has gone unnoticed until now.

Due in part to the rise of populism and to our polarized political environment, consumers are hyper-aware of controversy. As people and consumers demand action and answers, brands must follow.

Whether you work within the walled gardens of Google and Facebook or are part of the thousands of other digital media companies, it’s incumbent upon you to ensure the sanctity of your product and relationship with your customers.

The need for transparency

In my last article, A digital marketing CEO’s prescription to cure advertising fraud, I laid out a recipe for the marketing industry to combat ad fraud. With the rise of concerns for brand safety, it’s natural to expand on the need for transparency, which is the responsibility of technology vendors, agencies, brands and platforms.

Not to pick on the duopoly of Google and Facebook, but they have created a non-transparent environment that must be penetrated. I can’t blame them for vying for greater market share, as every business that has ever been created has tried to corner the market or create an exclusive experience where profits can be reaped with less competition.

This is true irrespective of industry. Mining and oil conglomerates exploit natural resources; Microsoft took hold of operating systems, Oracle of databases, AT&T in telecoms; Uber and Lyft disrupted taxis and have their own duopoly in transportation. And as these companies grow larger and larger, bad things happen when competition is reduced: blood diamonds, wars for oil, Microsoft bundling services (e.g., Netscape vs. Explorer), price gouging, poor customer service and predatory behavior.

Google and Facebook are pretty great at producing wonderful, crowd-pleasing products. But they are pretty terrible about allowing anyone other than them to have control. Thus, you can do super-granular audience targeting on Facebook, but good luck analyzing that audience off the platform. Or you can reach people who are searching for your product on Google, but you can only target that audience if you have their email addresses.

After Facebook battled with metrics problems, it has agreed to have some metrics audited by the Media Rating Council, and Google stated it will introduce MRC-rated companies for YouTube ad verification. But I doubt either company is about to allow the kind of full transparency on their platforms that will end problems that make advertisers wary.

The good news is that it’s leading to thousands of smaller companies offering a differentiated product. Brand safety as a buzzword is front-and-center now, but it’s something that many companies always focused on. Transparency (which is all that’s needed to combat ad fraud) should be central to any business model, from inception through growth.

A multipronged approach to brand safety

What I believe most companies in our space can and should do, including our duopoly friends, is take a multi-pronged approach to brand safety. It means getting the right mix of tech and people working proactively to protect the integrity of brands in their media buys.

Along with sophisticated data science that is always getting better at identifying people from bots, implement and use a quiver of partners like Integral Ad Science, Moat, DoubleVerify and anyone else your clients ask for. You can then prescreen ad inventory, conduct site analysis and scoring, do prebid targeting and use category and keyword exclusion to help ensure adherence to brand standards.

Couple tech with the right people to manage blacklists and whitelists, and constantly monitor campaigns and post-impression reporting, which will make transparency a reality.

Similar to attribution of impressions, variances exist in where accountability lies. Brands ultimately must accept responsibility for wherever their messages are seen, and they need to make their wishes clear to anyone they outsource the buying of media to.

A trusted (agency) partner should take responsibility for making sure that ads run in the right place, which is doubly true if the agency is running the ads through its own trading desk. Of course, the agency is then often delegating that trust to partners who actually run the media (like Google and Facebook), who in turn should take full responsibility for their actions.

Until solutions are presented and implemented, the issue of transparency continues as more brands demand inventory that is consistent with their good images. Popular culture has helped elevate brands and brand categories; the rise of populism has elevated controversial content categories.

To begin solving the challenges of brand safety, and of transparency, I call on the big guys to do as the little guy does, and start working together. Partnerships help create new ideas and can hold each other accountable.

You can cross the aisle, build a bridge, open a door, write an API — whatever the choice may be — the solution will come when we do it together.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.




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