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Ok, Google, what’s next after your transparency mea culpa?

Advertisers are lining up to round on Google for ad its role in the thorny issue of ad misplacement

As the dust settles on a painful week for Google, there’s no doubt that advertisers have paid the price for the mismanagement of a fragmented media supply chain. But now they’re starting to ask the kind of questions that could rattle the online media industry to its very foundations.

That frustration spilled over in two ways over the last few days: Google executives saying sorry for a brand safety issue it has yet to sufficiently tackle; and senior marketers shaking their heads in disbelief at what they deem a murky (at best) supply chain.

A peek into Google’s lounge at Advertising Week Europe earlier in the week laid bare the tension where its executives were seen huddled around tables and in corners with some of the industry’s biggest spending advertisers.

A crisis of confidence in Google

Outside the lounge, the mood was even more tense; Warner Bros, Santander, Channel 4, IPG, plus Dentsu Aegis Network were all at the forefront of a crackdown on the online business that’s both entirely necessary, and way overdue according to many attendees at the annual gathering.

"So while it’s been up until now an acceptable risk to have been working with someone like YouTube in the capacity we’ve been, this investigation has shone a light on the fine margin,” said Danni Murray, vice president of media, digital and marketing partnerships at Warner Bros Entertainment UK, as he admitted the business was one of those to suspend trading with the streaming site after its ads were served against controversial content.

"I think we will be off for a while, we don’t know how long it’s going to take for these recommendations to be put into place, or how long it will take for those things to be tested to see whether they really do the job they’re supposed to be doing,” he continued. "We’re in a constant dialogue with our partners, we’re trying to understand the level at which they take a view on that."

Things then went from bad to worse for Google as the week rolled on, with the contagion spread across the Atlantic as both AT&T and Verizon Wireless proactively suspended advertising with YouTube, and Interpublic Group boss Michael Roth also taking a shot across Google’s bow.

Meanwhile, back at Ad Week Europe, Sally Silver, the managing director of Dentsu’s media investment arm Amplify, noted how You Tube needs to clean up its act. “We have a whitelist of sites [or channels] on YouTube. Saying ‘we’re raising the bar’, as Matt Brittin did yesterday, is not going far enough,” she said.

“We want some guarantees for our advertisers and we are working at the moment to manually classifying [sic] YouTube content we can provide to advertisers. Google, should be doing that,” added Silver, stressing the need for manual content audit on the video sharing site.

Brand safety concerns soaring?

Even YouTube rival Twitch got involved, albeit without directly naming its counterpart. “I feel a bit sorry for them because this time seven or eight weeks ago when the story broke in The Times, it was the status quo – brands were happy to buy, agencies were happy to buy and now that’s changed somewhat,” said Steve Ford, vice president of sales for Twitch’s European business.

He went on to cite research into marketers’ main areas of concern when it comes to online advertising, pointing out that brand safety ranked third on the list behind viewability and fraud.

“If they asked the same group of people now their answer would be very different. In my opinion only good can come out of this, no one wants to be associated with hate and criminality,” added Ford. “I’m really keen to see how the platform that shall rename nameless will tackle [the problems] and implement the changes that they said they will do.”

Comments like this were plentiful as the week continued. There was a sense of inevitably that the ‘Google issue’ would rear its head at some point during many panels, so much so that some panelists deliberately tried to avoid it after the first two days.

That’s not to say they wanted to ignore the issue outright but between the flurry of hat-in-hand statements from Google, subsequently followed by a fresh wave of criticism from the industry, some seemed wary to twist the knife – many of them mindful that trust in advertising – not just Google – is on the wane. Unilever’s marketing chief Keith Weed was notably among these voices.

Google is down, but not out

“You bet against Google at your peril,” said Daniel Robb, a former Google employee and now chief marketing officer at Rentalcars.com. His allegiance to his former employer aside, the marketer makes a good case for why he thinks the beleaguered behemoth will “definitely come out stronger” from the furore now that it has launched a wave of counter measures to curb ad misplacement.

“Yes, Google has work to do to build trust but equally “some of the arguments being given are just outrageous”, he argued.

What Robb is getting at is ad misplacement is nothing new, an issue largely attributable to cookie retargeting which even the most junior of advertising executives could game to engineer ad misplacement.

It doesn’t take much to trigger an ad against contentious content; all someone needs to do is visit a site a, brand’s website few times and they’ll probably be retargeted across the web, and an advertiser can then end up serving an ad on a suspect site by accident. “The traffic to these sites is so small and generating so little revenue that it’s actually probably doubled just with people trying to trigger those ads and get examples,” opined Robb.

Tackling the uncomfortable truth that is digital advertising

So why is this uncomfortable truth becoming one everyone wants to talk about? For too long conversations around brand safety and ad misplacement haven’t taken place in boardrooms.

Instead, marketers have felt pressure to buy media as cheaply as possible and consequently with as little care to the point where they are prepared to ‘buy blind’ from anonymous networks. For every Rentalcars.com where the senior marketer like Robb refuses to take that path, there are others who will to get as many impressions as possible to meet a false goal.

“The way we have got here is because we have looked at the success of Google and Facebook through the lens of their ability to deliver ROI for direct response advertisers,” said Hamish Nicklin, the chief revenue officer at the Guardian.

“Certainly, in the nine years I was at Google we spent our years saying we have made billions of dollars understanding how you target consumers so they react immediately and generate incredible ROI for advertisers.

Nicklin goes on to explain his theory that applying the tactics of direct response advertising – where the emphasis is on messaging at scale as cheaply as possible – to branding campaigns is also at play when it comes to the ongoing occurrence of ad misplacement.

“So what we get to is this world where the only thing that matters is firing out as many ads as you possibly can to a particular target audience at scale and as cheaply as possible. That has been the prevailing wisdom of what digital paradigms should be, regardless of what your marketing objectives are,” he added.

This results in a scenario that plays into the hands of Facebook and Google, as they are the only ones with the scale to meet said demands, but what they do lack is “quality, premium, safe environments” according to Nicklin.

“Those are metrics and factors that are completely ignored in today’s ecosystem – it is all about cheap low cost audiences at scale because it benefits the two people who can shout very loudly about that being the way forward,” he added.

However, change is afoot, questions such as: ‘Where are my ads appearing?’; ‘Who’s seeing those ads?’; ‘Are they are in view?’, etc, are now just as likely to come from a chief executive as they are from a chief marketing officer. And while the trade press has written about why it’s important to read those questions for years, the power brokers at a Fortune 500 company are only really going to take notice when they see stories like this on the front page of their morning paper or an expose on the evening news.

The rise of the ‘awoken marketer'

Toward the end of the week, the Google-bashing gave way to pragmatism. Acknowledging the ever-increasing potential for margin to be made from the naïve, some marketers at the conference accepted that safer brand placement should start with themselves.

Daniel Creed, senior media strategist at Santander, argued that advertisers need to be more proactive, claiming that advertisers are ultimately responsible for spelling out what is, and what is not acceptable from the rest of the value chain.

“There should be support in creating the standards but getting the industry to mark its own homework probably isn’t satisfactory. That’s where advertisers need to step forward and decide where to draw the line, to know what they need to see internally,” he added.

The knock in value the transparency issue has had on Google’s stock price, according to Pivotal Research, combined with media agencies ganging up on the ‘big G’ show the pent-up demand to take it (the most dominant company on the internet) down a peg or two. But realistically what is the industry going to do; pull their spend from Google and spend it with Alta Vista?

Even if that was the case, through the ubiquity of DoubleClick - where Google pockets ad dollars without people necessarily knowing as it effectively white labels its tech to publishers - it will still end up collecting the bulk of ad spend.

The best the buy-side can hope for as a result of this is that Google will relent further from its 'walled garden stance' (a policy it justifies in the name of user privacy) and allow further third party tracking, and share more audience data from campaigns on its platforms.

“Here’s hoping that duopoly does shrink a bit, so the money does get spread around,” mused The Guardian’s Nicklin.

“As an advertiser, you want choice. What has happened over the last two months, the amount of people suddenly questioning the existing digital ad paradigm of low cost audiences at scale without any consideration for context,” he added.

As these existential forces become more commonplace among those controlling the purse-strings of serious media budgets, questions will continue to be asked of Facebook and Google (who collectively pocket more than 60% of all online media spend).

“I would argue there is a significant difference between a premium environment like the FT and the Guardian, and Facebook. If you are a brand advertiser, especially as your stats show three times higher brand impact, that will be something that will start breaking the duopoly’s hold over all of the digital advertising budget,” concluded Nicklin.

Reporting by Seb Joseph, Jen Faull, Rebecca Stewart, Jessica Goodfellow, and additional analysis by Ronan Shields

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Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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