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London Brand Safety Summit 2018: it still matters

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Brand safety is one of the most critical issues facing publishers and advertisers in today’s complex digital ecosystem. To tackle the topic head on, some of the world’s most senior publishing and advertising execs met in London last week for the 614 Group’s Brand Safety Summit.

The issue of brand safety is not new. But it raised to prominence last year when P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard cut more than $100 million in ads because he couldn’t be sure they weren’t running alongside objectionable content. He also railed against, “substantial waste in what has become a murky, non-transparent, even fraudulent media-supply chain”, telling Cologne’s Dmexco in September, “the reality is that in 2017, the bloom came off the rose for digital media.”

Against this backdrop the London Brand Safety Summit aimed ‘to specifically address the challenges that media and marketing executives face as they create brand safe experiences’.

Speaking to the assembled audience, Stephen Chester, Director of Media at ISBA (the UK advertising trade body representing 3,000 brands) also described 2017 as a watershed year, but not necessarily a negative one, as he felt the ensuing media coverage brought much-needed focus to the subject.

Ominously though, in the lunchtime panel exploring the future of brand safety, Chester remarked that this added focus had its downside, namely those companies who are still not willing to get behind industry standards, an issue which urgently needs addressing.

Exposing brand safety

Discussing what the expectations are from marketers when it comes to ad fraud, Mike Zaneis, CEO at TAG said brands either come through the “smart door” or “the stupid door”.

The smart educated door is wanting high end quality, but they only request this if they have the knowledge to say these things, such as “no fraud, this matters”. There should be a policy in place with agencies to be up front. We should be saying this is what we worked out with our smart marketers and we are going to employ it across our whole agency,” Zaneis commented.

The key phrase here is “there should be a policy in place with agencies to be up front.” Much of the existing problem has been created by agencies either dragging their heels on the issue or, worse, purposely obscuring the facts unaided or through illicit partnerships.

Whether agencies will voluntarily address this is a moot point. When Bo Sacks, one of America’s most respected publishing commentators tackled WPP’s Chairman Martin Sorrell over this very question at February’s American Magazine Media Conference, he was met with “Oh not that” and a barely audible groan.

When the chairman of the world’s largest advertising group, with over £15 billion in annual revenues, pays lip service to the question it’s difficult not to reach the same conclusion as Sacks, who wrote, ‘My guess is that Sir Martin and WPP aren’t the ones losing the money in the supply chain. In fact, quite the contrary’.

The spotlight shouldn’t rest solely on agencies either. January’s Manhattan District Attorney’s raid on Newsweek Media Group highlighted that transparency and alleged ad fraud can be as much a problem with publishers as agencies.

In the latter case, ad fraud watchdog Social Puncher reported that International Business Times supplemented a drop in organic search traffic to its website with paid traffic that used redirected traffic from pop-up or pop-under ads from pirate streaming sites. Newsweek denies wrongdoing, itself highlighting the problem in creating unified agency/publisher industry standards.

Work together to provide a transparent supply chain

Brand safety, and not just ad fraud, is also an issue the whole ecosystem is coming together to combat, so how are those on the demand side and supply side ensuring the inventory they trade is appropriate for the content it appears alongside?

Rachael Morris, Insights and Optimisation Director at Infectious Media and Andy Evans, CMO at Sovrn discussed how a completely open relationship with constant communication between buyers and sellers is key.

Morris – one of the top 50 women in ad tech – explained without a transparent relationship, the feedback was often merely ‘this was good’, or ‘this was bad’. The lack of information would subsequently lead to frustration, not least because it was hard to identify where problems exist, making it far more difficult to know where improvements were needed.

By working with an SSP like Sovrn, which is audited by industry associations such as TAG, JICWEBS, and the IAB Gold Standard, Rachael commented they are able to provide a full view of the supply chain and create activity for clients which is detailed and transparent, both operationally and financially.

Quality media shouldn’t be a variable of price point

When discussing the cost of implementing standards across the industry, Stephen Chester argued that even the minimum standards should be fraud free, safe and viewable. As a director of ISBA it’s difficult to envision how he could argue any differently, but he’s right.

Mary Keane-Dawson, Co-Founder and CEO at TRUTH Media Agency added; “Being transparent about my non-transparency, doesn’t add up to being transparent. Prices need to rise to make the programmatic chain transparent, fair and doing the job it’s supposed to do.”

There is also a need for a common understanding of what is brand safety and what is fraud; so all companies understand what it is they are offering. Chester commented that these could mean very different things: “There is a difference between brand safety and brand care. Safety is the nasty stuff, care is the non-relevant content.”

Whilst positive progress is being made, more work clearly needs to done.

Why it still matters

The overall message from the conference was clear – brand safety it is still as important an issue today as it was last year, yet a transparent and fraud free supply chain can only be achieved if the whole ecosystem plays to the same standards, and work together to form a trusted and open relationship throughout the whole supply chain. If the Summit demonstrated one thing, it’s that the buy and sell side are getting closer. That in itself is reason for optimism.