“Given the dominance of Google, DoubleClick and YouTube in the digital economy, many brands feel that it is essential to place advertising on your platform,” observed David Pemsel, chief executive officer of the Guardian, in a recent letter to Google’s European president. “It is therefore vital that Google, DoubleClick and YouTube uphold the highest standards in terms of openness, transparency and measures to avoid advertising fraud and misplacement in the future. It is very clear that this is not the case at the moment.”
Pemsel’s salvo followed closely on reports that advertisers, including the BBC and Royal Navy, found their creative appearing on YouTube videos promoting white nationalism and jihadi violence, and that similar quality issues are evident on Google’s third-party advertising exchange, AdX.
The two business lines are different. YouTube is a standalone video publisher, while AdX allows third-party publishers to auction their advertising inventory to buyers in real time. But the problem is the same: the parent company has allegedly compromised the brand safety of some of the world’s largest companies by allowing purveyors of hateful and violent content to use its technology platform to sell advertising space.
Pemsel called on other advertisers to cease working with Google until the company could provide assurances that name-brand adverts would “not sit next to extremist content in the future.”
The Guardian is far from alone in facing this challenge. World-renowned brands such as Mercedes-Benz were featured “on YouTube next to a pro-ISIS video that has been viewed more than 115,000 times.”
Nor is the problem limited to Google. In an interview with CNBC, Matt Borchard, media director at Noble People, describes the problem in its full scope: “Appearing next to bad or unwanted content has always been a problem... The sheer size of the internet means there is a small fraction that is premium, a lot that is mediocre, and a small amount that is truly awful, especially for advertisers. This isn’t a Google issue, it’s a digital network/exchange/inventory issue.”
This is no small matter. Digital advertising is the fastest-growing component of all global advertising. It’s how brands engage and interact with consumers, and it funds a large portion of the content – great journalism, film, music, information, and games – that consumers enjoy free of charge. If trust in this system breaks down, the entire internet suffers.
So what can we do to fix the problem? For all parties in the advertising supply chain – aggregators, publishers, advertisers, adtech companies – it’s time to agree on a set of guidelines to which we hold each other accountable.
1. Regular order: Facebook describes itself as a “town hall for the world.” It’s an apt characterisation that content aggregators such as Facebook and Google occupy. Neither company employs journalists, film makers or other content producers; rather, they publish and monetise other people’s content. That’s a perfectly fine business model, but much like traditional New England town halls, these companies should operate by standard rules of order.
Digital conveners should agree on a broad but concrete set of community principles that exclude from their platforms hate speech, pornography, graphic violence, illegal activity and deceptive practices in commerce – a broad category that encompasses ‘fake news.’ Adopting such policies is foundational. Enforcing them consistently and with investments in automated and human screening processes is key.
2. Safe advertising: Every actor in the digital advertising supply chain bears responsibility for ensuring brand safety – including brands and advertisers. Ample tools exist to empower buyers of digital advertising to buy safely. Buyers of internet advertising can operate in white-listed environments – meaning, they can bid only on pre-approved domains.
Nothing comes for free, including brand safety. Working with white lists inevitably means limiting the number of sites from which a company will buy advertising inventory and abandoning longtail domains. Latterly, JP Morgan Chase announced that it was doing just that. Whereas its advertisements recently appeared on as many as 400,000 websites each month, it now bids in real time to run campaigns on a pre-screened list of just 5,000 domains. Critically, the company has seen little to no change in performance, viewability or CPMs.
But who should build and curate the industry’s white lists? Marketers with JP Morgan Chase’s wherewithal can perform this function in-house. Others rely on outside partners. There is an opening for collaboration between responsible adtech partners, industry groups, non-profits and academic partners to create safe lists that marketers and agencies can adopt or adapt. The challenge is systemic and demands a cooperative approach.
3. Marketplace quality: Operators of third-party advertising exchanges or marketplaces, similarly enjoy wide influence and have a great obligation to the public. This means blacklisting domains that promote piracy, hate speech, pornography, graphic violence or deceptive acts in commerce.
Detecting and weeding out these domains requires consistent enforcement, investments in data science, and steely determination. The right to publish hateful content is inviolate; any outlet that wishes to do so is free to sell (or try to sell) its advertising directly to major brands and agencies. But there is no fundamental right to sell inventory on a real-time digital advertising marketplace. It’s time for adtech companies to come together and codify a uniform minimum standard, and then to apply uniform enforcement of that standard.
Enforcing a safe, quality advertising ecosystem isn’t just ethically responsible, it’s good for business. If marketers can’t be guaranteed that their brands are safe through digital advertising, the entire system shuts down. Advertisers will reduce or eliminate their digital dollars. Publishers will lose money, which could force them to charge subscription fees, or worse, shrink or shutter their businesses. And consumers will have less choice in where they turn for their information and entertainment.
The stakes are high. But if the industry comes together to build a better internet, the rewards are great. A better internet will enhance knowledge, reward and enable creativity, foster democracy and help people to engage with each other across borders and oceans.
We are willing to work with anyone – including Google – to solve these critical brand safety challenges.
By Jerome Underhill, VP, Account Management, AppNexus.