Seven ways advertisers can deal with brand safety concerns

For years, advertisers have tolerated a big elephant in the room: the fact that their digital ads aren't always appearing where they would want them to.

For years, advertisers have tolerated a big elephant in the room: the fact that their digital ads aren’t always appearing where they would want them to.

But a recent exposé by The Times detailing how ads from major brand advertisers were being displayed alongside extremist videos on YouTube appears to have pushed advertisers over the edge.

The ensuing boycott of YouTube, which has seen some of the biggest brand advertisers and agencies pull their ads from the popular video platform, has focused the industry’s attention on the topic of brand safety in a way it hasn’t been focused before.

Here are seven ways advertisers can grab the bull by the horns and address the challenge of ensuring brand safety in a digital advertising marketplace that is big, complex and often lacking in transparency.

Advertise in fewer places

According to a New York Times report, JPMorgan Chase recently reduced the number of ads its websites appear on. Previously, its ads were served on some 400,000 sites. Today, its ads appear on just 5,000 which the big bank says it has pre-approved.

The early results suggest that the dramatic decrease won’t affect the efficacy of the company’s digital advertising efforts. According to JPMorgan Chase CMO Kristin Lemkau, “It’s only been a few days, but we haven’t seen any deterioration on our performance metrics.”

The reason for that might have something to do with the fact that even though adtech firm Index Exchange says that properties owned by the top 50 media companies account for just 5% of ad impressions delivered, JPMorgan Chase found that only 3% of the sites its ads were appearing on delivered an action other than an impression.

In other words, just a small fraction of the websites it has been advertising on were driving action.

But what about campaigns specifically designed for brand visibility and not, say, click-throughs? According to comScore, ads displayed on premium properties deliver significantly higher brand lift, so directing ad spend to the “best” inventory might not be so limiting after all, even when it comes to branding-focused campaigns.

Hold agencies accountable

Since major advertisers frequently have third-party agencies purchase ads for them, advertisers who choose not to bring their media buying efforts in-house should be prepared to hold their agencies accountable for ensuring that their ads don’t appear alongside objectionable content.

This doesn’t just mean taking action when an agency fails to properly vet ad buys. It also means demanding that agencies create and describe proactive strategies for how they will minimize the risk of their clients’ ads on properties they wouldn’t approve before any ad buys are made.

Hold ad providers accountable

In addition to holding their agencies accountable, advertisers need to be willing to hold ad providers accountable for not doing enough to police their own inventory.

Fortunately, after years of failing to stand up for their interests, the YouTube boycott demonstrates that advertisers collectively wield a lot of power and they can force ad providers to step up when they make it clear that ad providers that their ad spend can go away.

While there are reasonable limits to what advertisers should expect major ad companies like Google and Facebook to do, Google’s response to the boycott makes it clear that ad providers are capable of doing more than they have been.

Embrace whitelisting and blacklisting

Most ad platforms offer whitelist and blacklist tools that allow advertisers to better control where their ads appear. The problem: lots of advertisers don’t take full advantage of these, if they take advantage of them at all.

In some cases, advertisers don’t know that these tools exist. In others, however, they are fully aware of the tools and simply don’t make use of them. To be sure, the prospect of reviewing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of sites is not appealing, but it’s not at all impossible.

In JPMorgan’s case, the company’s decision to eliminate ads on sites that didn’t deliver anything more than an impression dropped the number of sites that needed to be reviewed from 400,000 to 12,000, a manageable number for a company intern.

Consider private marketplaces

For all of its virtues, programmatic advertising is one of the biggest drivers of complexity in the digital ad ecosystem and is frequently blamed for ads appearing on properties that advertisers would never want their ads appearing on.

Fortunately, advertisers don’t have to choose between embracing programmatic with open arms or shunning it entirely. Instead, they can look to private marketplaces (PMPs) that have been created by premium publishers. These offer the benefits of programmatic across premium properties that are far less likely to contain objectionable content.

Don’t make assumptions when it comes to social platforms

When it comes to social platforms and brand safety, all bets are off. For example, Felix Kjellberg, YouTube’s highest-earning star, was part of the Google Preferred program, which offers brand advertisers access to some of YouTube’s most popular channels.

But Kjellberg, who goes by the name PewDiePie on YouTube, was removed from that program after the Wall Street Journal published a report detailing how he created a number of videos containing anti-Semitic themes supposedly intended to be jokes.

The PewDiePie scandal reminds advertisers that on social platforms, even top creators can go rogue and as such, advertisers can’t count on their content to always be brand-safe.

Proactively police campaigns

Ultimately, there’s no substitute for proactive policing. Advertisers need to be prepared to monitor where their ads appear on an ongoing basis, and to take action when they find that their ads are not where they should be.


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