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Brand safety: You pay for what you get

Alistair Burton, Digital Media Director, Initiative


Brand safety: You pay for what you get


It all started from a ‘quality’ news source exposé with the headline “Big brands fund terror,” highlighting how content from global brands was appearing next to terrorism-related content and inadvertently funding terrorist groups. As brands began to boycott GDN and YouTube the concern around brand safety grew, hitting Google where it hurts with an estimated $750 million loss in potential revenue.

This incident raises the question of responsibility: who should be held accountable? Google, Facebook, ad networks, the website owners, the advertiser or the agency managing the ad account?

Modeling this on ‘traditional’ guidelines, if media outlets purported irresponsible content they would shut down. Likewise, brands would be brought before a judge if they illegally sourced or mis-sold products.

But Google has developed an amazing ecosystem digital advertising, all based around content they don’t actually own themselves. Overall it’s said to be worth 55 percent of the entire digital advertising market. Anyone in their right mind can see they have to be at least partially responsible for what happens within that network, can’t they?

Who’s accountable?

Google (or any tech platform) should be held accountable for their own products, in conjunction with the end users. But, even if you use Google’s targeting best practice and brand safety tools there is still no guarantee that you won’t appear next to harmful content.

At the same time, agencies and the advertising industry collectively need to look at their own management of these self-service platforms and ensure that brand safety is not only a priority, but THE priority. They need to invest time, effort and money into knowing where their advertising is positioned and mitigating risks to brand safety.

From a consumer perspective, Donald Trump brought the term ‘fake news’ back to prominence over the past 12 months. The Brexit debate is another example that illustrates how the lines between facts, opinion and falsehoods have become blurred to the point of being dangerously difficult to differentiate. The net effect is that advertising (both real and fake) is having a genuine impact on global issues as crucial as the democratic outcome of elections.

Who’s responsible for solving the brand safety debate?

With advertising revenue pouring though Google and into the end website owner’s pocket, who holds the key to solving Google’s brand safety debate?

  • Tech platforms that own the network the advertising is delivered through?
  • The agency responsible for the advertising account settings and targeting?
  • The advertisers themselves as the brand custodians?

Increasingly digital advertising is delivered through algorithms without full transparency on where it’s appearing or why an individual or piece of content has been targeted.

Google’s response focuses on guidelines of where ads should appear, and how the volume of content uploaded makes errors inevitable. Current figures state that around 400 hours of content is uploaded onto YouTube every minute and with the millions of websites in GDN they are (with some justification) claiming that only a small percentage of concerning cases are getting through.

Yet from an advertisers perspective, a single impression next to the sensitive content is one too many, with the potential to cause irreparable damage. As a self-service platform, Google is attempting to move the conversation back to the account owner to cross-check their brand safety filters.

Brands do not want to be positioned next to such questionable or even illegal content; likewise consumers do not want their opinion guided by ‘alternative facts’. This opens up a huge opportunity for premium content producers to position themselves as the trusted media channel both for consumers and advertisers alike.

What’s the role of publishers and account owners?

Comparing this example to print advertising, you wouldn’t find an advertiser in a terrorist recruitment magazine by accident. So can the same rules not be applied digitally?

Looking at the brand’s responsibility as well as the agency running its self-service platform, digital marketers appear to be in a procurement time warp; constantly under pressure to reduce costs while improving the quality of advertising, targeting and reporting.

You don’t need to be a mathematician to spot the problem here, and that something needs to give. Brand safety tools and technology are widely available, but they do require time, effort and investment to become as efficient and effective as they claim they can be.

Traditional vs digital

However, if you apply this framework to a traditional media environment, it’s clear to see the flaws in the thinking. Take a luxury brand for example, that wants to target a premium audience while reducing the cost to target that audience. A hyper automated model could end up placing advertising in a premium postcode (right audience) but on cigarette bins (wrong context). The tools would tell you the audience remains correct, but the pressure to reduce costs combined with a lack of full transparency and human verification on which media the advertising could appear would ultimately deliver ads in the wrong context.

Brand safety should be the first priority, but all too often the focus is reduced to achieving the lowest CPMs / CPCs . Time, effort and financial investment in teams, tools and technologies to protect a brand safety has taken a backseat in the race to the bottom of the barrel where the most impressions, cheapest clicks and highest conversion rates are the only things that matter.

The number of times I’ve read ‘game changing thinking’ and ‘deliver the impossible’ within an RFP is too many to count. Aside from the unnecessary clichés, it’s great that advertisers want to move their brand forward, but underneath the surface the real story emerges that the expectations are that costs need to fall and impressions need to grow.

Tech providers, such as Google and Facebook need to lead on this debate, ensuring that unsafe content is flagged up and avoided by advertisers (or anyone) in the first place, let alone charging advertisers to pay to appear next to it. We need to remember that Google or Facebook are not content providers, so it’s essential to ensure these safety checks are delivered by third parties in a competitive marketplace. At the same time advertisers need to ensure costs don’t become the focus making brand safety an afterthought, while agencies need to ensure that minimum benchmarks for brand safety are set with investment in teams, tools and technology.

Personally, I hope the debate continues to snowball, until best practice brand safety issues become the industry standard, which comes back to the title of this article – you pay for what you get!

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