YouTube’s ongoing brand safety issues have thrust the media industry into crisis, with advertisers and media agencies also in the dock, all three parties close the year in the midst of a power-play.
An investigation by The Drum into the more recent episodes of the saga, shows widespread disagreement over culpability, U-turns and finger-pointing from many quarters, all played out in the court of public opinion.
YouTube's struggles to prevent ads from running against egregious content has been known for years. However, earlier this month it bubbled to the surface again after it was revealed that big names, including Amazon, Mars and Adidas, were advertising against ‘inappropriate’ videos of children.
Despite this, The Drum has learned that Adidas resumed spend with YouTube within 48 hours of it then suspended advertising with the platform. It later claimed it had worked with it media agencies and Google to iron out the issues, after earlier declaring such ad placement as “completely unacceptable”.
Other brands, like Mars and Lidl, have stood firm in the face of the latest controversy, as brands and agencies alike fail to reach a consensus over how to tackle the issue. However, inquiries made by The Drum have demonstrated disagreements over the question of who is responsible for such mishaps?
In a fresh attempt to address these concerns, YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki revealed a four-step action plan yesterday (5 December) that includes bringing the total number of "human reviewers" to more than 10,000 in 2018.
Speaking to The Drum ahead of the latest controversy, Dyana Najdi, director of YouTube and video solutions, EMEA, said that while the video-sharing platform could have demonetised damaging videos faster when the issues first came to light in February, the onus also fell on advertisers’ relationship with their media agencies.
“[Brands] weren't as involved as they should have been with agencies on suitability,” Najdi told The Drum. Suitability is what a brand defines as the kind of content they want to appear next (whitelists), and the content they want to avoid (blacklists).
This, Najdi said, is something that “wasn't top of mind” for brands before the brand safety issues came to the fore, adding that educating brands around these safeguards has been “one of the positives” to arise from the crisis.
“The openness and continued dialogue has been really positive,” she said.
The agency view
Paul Frampton, departing chief executive of Havas Media Group UK and Ireland, agreed that awareness of around suitability is much higher among brands now than it was a year ago.
Frampton, who caused a bit of a stir when Havas pulled media spend from YouTube on behalf of clients at the start of the year, said: “The programmatic space is a complex one and most brands would admit it is one that historically they may have not fully understood."
While they might be asking "smarter questions" around the topic, brand marketers rely on their media agencies to manage online campaigns, said Frampton, both to ensure ROI and maintain brand image.
In a statement released to The Drum in light of the most recent YouTube scandal, a spokesperson from Dentsu Aegis explained: “The role of agencies is to put the most robust systems and technology in place and lead partnerships that create the best environments possible for advertising to be safe and effective.”
However, the nature of real-time programmatic advertising means that often agencies don’t know which sites the ads they manage appear on, or in YouTube’s case, the nature of the videos the ads appear against, referred to as the ‘spray and pray’ approach. While YouTube allows an advertiser to select categories of content they want to appear next to, such as sport, politics and music, this doesn’t verify the quality of the content, or whether it is premium versus user-generated.
YouTube's argument, according to Najdi, is that there is "no universal agreement on what is ‘safe’ for advertising".
"Even for some advertisers they will have a different policy in one market than they would in another. The minute you get into suitability it becomes personal to every advertiser," she added.
As such, agencies cannot be certain they are fulfilling their role of creating 'safe' and 'effective' ad environments when relying on algorithms and machine learning to categorise and vet the content that ads appear next to on YouTube.
“We’re working with our affected clients and YouTube to answer that question and ensure that campaigns are delivered in as risk-free a way as possible,” the spokesperson from Dentsu added.
Part of the issue is that there is no one strategy that is "100% fool-proof", said Frampton. YouTube's complaint is there is a lack of agreed standards on what denotes unsafe content, while agencies argue that whitelists and blacklists don't provide the granularity needed to ensure ads are safe.
Perhaps the most common gripe is YouTube's overreliance on machines to filter content, which Publicis Media told The Drum was one of the key areas of improvement it has been pushing Google for, together with better third-party verification.
"We are committed to the highest levels of brand safety and expect the same from media partners, including Google," the agency said.
The brand view
In response to growing concerns around damaging ad placements, brands have been taking greater control over the way their inventory and demanding greater transparency from their partners, calling the role of the media agency into question.
Research undertaken by video adtech outfit Teads last month found that nearly half (43%) of the UK's most prominent CMOs have reviewed agency contracts in the last 12 months in response to growing concerns around brand safety. Among them was Procter & Gamble's Marc Pritchard, representing the world’s biggest advertiser.
In fact, it seems that agencies have been bearing the brunt of the issues versus Google itself, which has seen little effect on its bottom line this year despite a number of high profile brands claiming to pull spend.
Matti Littunen, senior research analyst at Enders Analysis, believes there's a shortage of brands "voting with their wallets", backed up by Google's claim that the scale of the issue it has had on YouTube was "relatively contained" throughout the year, with the vast majority of its advertisers "continuing as they were", Matt Brittain, president of EMEA business and operations, said last month.
Indeed, it seems marketers' priorities lie elsewhere, after it emerged in November that the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) had actually warned some about the issue a year-and-a-half ago.
Speaking to journalists at a press event hosted by Google last month, Stephan Loerke, the WFA’s chief executive conceded that around “six months” before the initial Times’ report was published it brought in an expert to brief members.
The WFA even released a report and briefed member companies about the risk involved, and those who were aware took action before the story became mainstream news.
At the time, Loerke said: “There was not that much interest, or momentum, in sense that when you don’t have it in newspapers with brands being associated publicly it still appears to be quite abstract.” His comments implied that until the story became a national headline, brands were not asking questions about how they worked with Google, or indeed their agencies.
If anything, Adidas’ decision to funnel money back into YouTube just two days after calling out about the issue publicly has shown that some brands have been assuaged by YouTube’s behind-the-scenes assurances.
The Drum understands that Adidas worked with the Google-owned site to ensure all blacklisted terms were revised and conducted a “full audit” of its ad placements. It is monitoring the situation closely with media partner Carat.
The sports brand also said it was able to rectify issues quickly because it was only running one large campaign on the video sharing site at the time, where FMCG giants with multiple brands may have had various campaigns live.
Some brands like Lidl and Mars remain a lot more cautious and have confirmed to The Drum that they have not resumed spend with YouTube, implying there is further convincing to be done.
One senior digital brand marketer who wished to remain anonymous said they believed YouTube was taking the situation lightly and did not have any legitimate solutions in place. “We’ve been hounding them for months,” they added, saying that Google Preferred - which lets brands advertise against content categories most popular among 18 to 34 year olds - was a “super limited product.”
So where does this leave YouTube?
Should more brands follow in the steps of P&G, which has enforced a huge cutback on digital marketing spend this year yet noted no negative impact on its revenues, digital players from YouTube to Facebook would be right to be concerned.
In reality, YouTube is a "tiny" part of Google's overall business, with search accounting for over 80% of revenues, according to Enders' Littunen. That means even if 10-20% of YouTube revenue was at risk it would only be 1% of total ad revenue. So while it may have announced a series of new measures to assuage brand safety concerns, this will likely be to offset a year of negative PR, rather than to secure its revenue.
Google's ability to outperform in search in order to buoy YouTube, according to Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal Research, has shown that the only way for brands to affect the search giant's bottom line is to band together to boycott the "unacceptable" practices.
Holding brands back is the promise of cheap CPMs when compared against the more expensive, yet more brand safe, ad slots on TV. This race to the bottom is "begging for trouble", said Littunen, as it essentially opens brands up to fraud and bad ad placement.
In line with this, Frampton argued the industry will witness a shift towards professional content and away from user-generated content, which could have repercussions on YouTube.
"Brands have every right to expect quality, brand safe environments and user generated content will never be as reliable as quality funded content. However, as a knock-on effect, brands must also acknowledge that this will drive up pricing," he concluded.
Indeed, Business Insider reports that YouTube is telling advertisers that prices for some of its top US channels could increase by nearly 20% next year as a result of increased demand for "premium" video ad space; something that's likely to be a hot topic in 2018. YouTube declined to comment to The Drum on these reports.