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Unilever’s Keith Weed says CMOs must take responsibility for brand safety scandal – ‘it’s not just Google’s fault’

Unilever CMO Keith Weed (pictured center) addresses brand safety in Cannes

Marketers need to shoulder more of the responsibility for the brand safety crisis that has engulfed the industry this year instead of pinning all the blame on Google, according to the CMO of the world’s second largest advertiser.

Unilever’s Keith Weed also told an audience in Cannes that some of the complaints marketers raise about their ads appearing in other inappropriate environments, or delivering disappointing returns, stem from shortcomings in their own media buying practices.

Speaking at a HuffPost event overlooking the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity where Google, media owners and adtech companies are out in force, Weed said: “I think a lot of marketers just didn’t get it. And programmatic is a double-edged sword.

“If you’re trying to buy the cheapest media – you’re driving, driving, driving that – do you know what? The cheapest media is on the lousy sites. You get what you pay for. If it’s too good to be true it probably is.

“I think they’ve been very quickly pointing the finger and saying it’s all YouTube and Google’s fault, whereas some of them might have been saying ‘actually, no, maybe we’re not buying as well as we should be’.”

Marks & Spencer, HSBC, L’Oreal and Royal Mail were among a lengthy list of big-spending brands who paused advertising on Google’s YouTube after a series of prominent stories in the Times of London exposed that they had been running ads next to extreme content.

But Weed publicly rallied behind the beleaguered Google and kept Unilever’s ad spend – which encompasses brands including Lynx, Dove and Ben & Jerry’s – on the platform.

He said of that decision: “We very much support Google. We felt it better for us as a partner – and we’ve worked with Google for many years – to work with them to get to a solution rather than leave them.

“We didn’t have an issue. There’ll always be an occasional ad that goes in the wrong place. That’s true whether it’s a billboard next to a shop where you don’t want to have your billboard or newspapers – ads next door to content you’re less interested in. But what we were using was the highest level of security guardrails on YouTube.”

Google has “done a lot to get better than they were” since this row surfaced, according to Weed, but he added that “what we haven’t got to yet that we need to get to is better identification of content”.

He cited news publishers as an example: “News covers the BBC and it might also be a news site that’s got an affiliate to some terrorist organization – that’s still news. We need better specification of the content beyond just these broad big titles.”

During the discussion with Huffpost’s editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen and Airbnb’s global marketing director Alexandra Dimiziani, Weed also touched on one of the marketing industry’s other major pain points – viewability.

He said: “I find it extraordinary that some people are saying that a view in digital media on video is 50% of the pixels. It’d be like me selling Ben & Jerry’s and you opening it up to buy it and finding it’s only half full, and me saying, ‘well, as an industry we’ve decided we’re only going to give you half a tub of ice cream’.

“100% of the pixels has to be a view. That needs to be a standard that all of us engage in. Then third-party verification is important. It’s not a question of we don’t trust Google etc. But there’s billions of dollars at stake here.

“I think the only way we’ll really solve this is to come back to the basics. We have one budget at the end of the day and one consumer, or viewer, or whatever – and we need to have one measurement system. The good guys will win in this situation because the dollars will follow the best advertising platforms.”

For more news from Cannes Lions follow the dedicated news stream on The Drum website

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Cameron Clarke

Cameron Clarke is The Drum's Deputy Editor, and has covered the marketing industry for the title for a decade. Based in the UK, he is now primarily responsible for commissioning and editing The Drum's opinion coverage. He also writes features about brands with unorthodox approaches to media and marketing, such as Brewdog, Patagonia and De Correspondent.

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