The Thing About Brand Safety

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Is brand safety the real problem for brands today?

The problem with digital advertising, is that it can cheap and expansive. So, if a brand really wants to make a big (or significant) impact online, they can spend a lot of money and have their ad show up in a myriad of places. The technology is not perfect. How these ads get placed isn’t perfect. There have been many instances where brands have found their ads running alongside some pretty nasty content. Sometimes, it’s not even nasty content. Sometimes, it’s just a piece of content that is not aligned with the brand’s vision, mission and purpose. Back in 2017, brands started pulling their advertising from YouTube after discovering that their ads were sidling up against undesirable channels and videos.

Brands are demanding brand safety. 

If you look at what keeps the CMO up at night, “brand safety” has quickly risen the charts to become a top priority. The last thing that the marketing department needs is a nasty call from a consumer, a screen grab that makes the news, or the CEO getting told by a friend that they saw their ad running against content that is in conflict with the company’s brand image. So, if you’re a vegan donut shop, you don’t want your ad running next to an article about hunting season. And, yes, that’s a softball compared to having your ad as a pre-roll for a radical political ideology… and you can see how dark things can get from there.

So, whose fault is it anyway?

Brands seem to lay the blame on the publishers and the platforms. The technology should know better. I think it runs deeper than that. I also think there is history to brands blaming everything on anybody else (but themselves), when things go awry. How many brutally bad ads (in bad taste) have you seen get pulled from the media, and the brand response is to blame the agency. I don’t have any data to substantiate this claim, but I can eyeball that problem and tell you (with confidence) that 95% of the time, the brand throws the agency under the bus, the agency gets fired, and then several months later it comes out that, of course, the brand knew about, was a part of the creative process and approved the final cut. This happens all of the time. Where’s the brand safety there?

Brands need to hold themselves to a higher standard.

There are two factors at play here, and they are important for everyone (brands, agencies and publishers alike) to understand:

  1. A brand can choose where the ads are placed. Do not kid yourself into thinking that this is not possible. Brands can handpick publications, positioning and put in place rules for when/where their ad will appear (and the penalties when this doesn’t happen). Accidents will happen, because that’s a normal thing, but at a macro level, this is totally doable. The question is this: are brands willing to pay for this? Are they willing to put in the extra time, research and personnel to truly ensure brand safety? If it’s so important to them, why wouldn’t they? The answer for this is simple too: speed and scale. If they want to grab and push for more attention (and get the cheapest price possible), it’s hard to control where the message lands. Ironic, isn’t it? Brands spend tons of money on the mission and on the message, and then became very loose on where that message gets placed. Programmatic systems haven’t helped this problem, either. 
  2. Good stories perform better. The data is there to back this up (as we learned the other week at IAB Canada’s CMUST event – their latest report will be available soon). If the exact same ad is served next to a piece of content that is positive and then next to a story that is negative, the ad on the positive piece of content will always perform better. We know this, intrinsically, but it’s true/data proven now. If you can always ensure that your ad is showing up next to good news (over bad news), consumers will like the brand, and have a more favorable impression of it. In order to capitalize on this, brands have to invest a lot more time and money into the media process. True, news outlets can’t always guarantee that ad runs next to something positive. Obviously. News outlets are primarily the bearer of bad news. Brands don’t mind this placement, because they’re getting eyeballs… and lots of them (because that’s the nature of news). So, if brands truly cared about brand safety, why even risk advertising with a news media outlet? Again, the answer is simple: lots of attention.

More questions about brand safety.

Of course, the full responsibility for brand safety has to be a partnership between the brand, media company/agency and publisher.  Of course, publishers who are selling ad space should have a better grasp on what that inventory is. Of course, it works best when everyone is aligned with the campaign and the expectations. It does start at the top. If brands want brand safety, there’s a simple way to make it happen (re-read above). Right now, brands are reacting to the realities of the environment. These are digital platforms that have scaled at an unreasonable rate to become media juggernauts. These platforms (for the most part) don’t create or produce content. They allow individuals (some accredited and most not) to publish anything and everything. It’s the Wild West (still… even as these platforms bulk up their terms and conditions). With that many eyeballs, the brands can’t/won’t/don’t want to stay away. Brands go where the wind blows. The wind is now in the sails of many platforms that don’t create content, and are struggling to police the content that is being posted. This is the result. 

If brands truly live and breathe their image, goals and mission, brand safety should be job one… and they can’t blame the publishers for that.