brand safety technology adtech

It’s been fifteen months since The Times exposed Google’s YouTube for displaying ads from leading brands, such as Jaguar Land Rover and Marie Curie, alongside terrorist content – revealing they were inadvertently funding terrorist organisations in the process. The investigation brought the topic of brand safety front and center of the advertising industry, and more than a year on, the issue remains a key concern.

Since the scandal, the digital ad industry has seen the introduction of tools and practices to help raise standards. The Association for Online Publishers (AOP) launched an Ad Quality Charter to drive digital media clean up, and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) UK launched its Gold Standard to reduce ad fraud, improve the digital advertising experience, and increase brand safety. Part of the Gold Standard includes implementing ads.txt, a file publishers place on their server declaring which businesses are authorised to sell their digital inventory. It gives the publisher control of their ad space and gives the buyer reassurance that they are buying authentic impressions.

But despite this, can brand safety ever really be guaranteed?

Problematic programmatic

Programmatic – the mechanism by which digital ads are traded – took the brunt of the blame. The chain that supplies it is often complex, with several middlemen between the brand and publisher. When brand safety issues arise, brands can’t fully understand how or why the problem happened, as they are often too far removed from the end result. The blame is often then placed with media buying agencies, yet they have as much insight into the supply chain as the client they represent.

It is therefore important for partners throughout the supply chain to have a completely transparent relationship. But this can only be achieved if the whole ecosystem plays to the same standards and works together to form a trusted and open relationship.

Transparency and ad fraud are as much of a problem with publishers as they are agencies. In December last year, News UK found high levels of domain spoofing of its sites, The Sun and The Times of London newspaper brands, where 2.9 million bids per hour were made on fake inventory. Such fraudulent activity deprives advertisers of reaching valid audiences and denies the publisher revenue – in the case of News UK, $1 million (£730,000) a month.

A call for everyone to play their part

Yet there seems to be confusion over what being transparent really means. There is transparency – how every individual is working in the supply chain – and there is being transparent about not being fully transparent. While it is commendable for being honest, the programmatic chain must be of high quality and include no fraud.

Unfortunately choosing quality over quantity can come with a price, which can push advertisers to opt for multiple low quality, cheap inventory which may not guarantee brand safety in a scattergun approach of ‘spray and pray’. It shouldn’t be the case that high price equates to fraud-free; inventory should simply contain no fraud.

Differentiate between brand safe and brand care

This isn’t to say that smaller niche publications aren’t brand safe. Actually, subject-specific sites can offer highly engaged users with contextually relevant messaging in a brand safe environment. Not only brand safe but also focused and on topic, which can help with brand care.

Think of it this way, brand safety is the nasty stuff, but brand care is the non-relevant content – the grey area – where content may not appear offensive, but could easily be damaging if it doesn’t align with a brand’s positioning and can be just as damaging to a brand.

So fifteen months on, brand safety – and brand care – still matter. Yes, the issues have been discussed at length and new initiatives have been brought in to help, but more still needs to be done if the digital advertising industry is to ever fully recover.

Zoe Baptie By Zoe Baptie, Senior Account Manager