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Brands – your ads are appearing on terror and porn sites right now!

Your Brand Here

When Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of P&G says of its media supply chain that it is ‘murky at best, fraudulent at worst’ P&G’s ad agencies have a crisis on your hands. When you discover that the scatter gun approach to programmatic media buying (media buying: the once fine art of placing a client’s advert precisely where their consumer is) has been funding terrorism – you have a catastrophe. You pray no one notices, then the Times puts you on their front page.

A PICTURE SPEAKS A THOUSAND WORDS

Fairfax Cone of FCB, oft quoted as ‘the father of modern advertising’ nailed it on the head: "Advertising is what you do when you can't go see somebody” Easy.

From this, the fundamental components of the art of selling can be extrapolated 1) locate them 2) meet them 3) persuade them. The ad industry application is thus:

1) The planner identifies who the consumer is and what makes them tick.

2) The media buyer meets them through brilliant media targeting.

3) The creatives stop them in their tracks and serenade them wherever they are found.

As soon as you deviate from the fundamentals, strange anomalies begin to occur. Elderly Polish immigrant saleswomen end up standing on the doorsteps of white supremacist organisations trying to convince the racists to give money to help people like her. Western (infidel) bankers get caught trying to seduce radical Islamists into depositing their proceeds of state sponsored terrorism into their banks, holiday salesmen set up stalls outside ISIS headquarters trying to sell summer getaways to passers-by by handing out brochures full of desert scenes from ISIS videos, and decent, high street gadget shops try to convince kids to buy wireless headphones - mid wank.

Hyperbole right? Um, no actually. These are almost the exact scenarios that happened to Marie Curie, Halifax, Sandals holidays and Argos, and I feel for them. Their adverts were assuredly deposited by a big data machine that made a split second ebayesque autobid decision about an irresistible mega media deal with extra chips and bought a 1x4mm banner ad placement on content so beyond inappropriate it surpasses any brand embarrassment precedent to date.

And before you wave your hand and say that these are one-offs, that the ‘machine’ isn’t perfect so there is bound to be the occasional ‘misunderstanding’ – understand this, at least 12% of ALL programmatic advertising placement is GUARANTEED to end up on an unsavoury site. I have been told the stat is higher – but 12% is more than enough cause for concern. Pay attention Pepsi, Burger King, McCain, Tui, Argos, Nike, Honda, M&S, Reuters, Halifax, Churchill, Waitrose, Adidas, Audi, HSBC, NatWest et al – your ads are likely appearing on a porn site right this second. And btw, you are not being told about it because the data is being deliberately held from you and worse still, you likely signed a contract that effectively means the man you bought the car off doesn’t need to show you the log book.

The fact this even happens has likely come as a bit of a shock (deny everything) because surely no media company or ad agency would dare risk your precious contract by taking the risk of associating your brand with the scum of the earth, right?

Wrong.

We are in a gold rush, a $200bn a year gold rush that has, up ‘til now, been protected by degrees of complexity that Mr Sub Prime himself would have been proud of.

Unless we get a grip, Gillette razors are soon to star alongside a decapitation story, Coca-Cola next to a Columbian drug bust, BMW next to the world’s biggest motorway pile up and McDo’s having a not entirely irrelevant placement on ‘Gobble my fatty buns dot com’

Actually, the problem isn’t so much the automation issue (it is at least possible to reduce the shock horror for both clients and their agencies as I will reveal in a sec) it’s really the fact that the media buying/placement bit has been long detached from the planning/creative bit. We now live in an age where the salesman’s pitch (creative) is engineered with almost no understanding of the shape and nature of the shop window or what ‘street’ it’s in.

Worse still – the client’s excitement for this new-fangled ad gadget called programmatic (“everyone else is using it so it must be good?”) is such that that all important ‘persuasion’ piece is almost entirely overlooked; “spare me that planning, targeting, creative malarkey; make my logo 1000% smaller (compared to a decent poster) and Pollock it onto a billion little windows!!” (12 million of which are guaranteed to be on Ron Jeremy Street, Al-Shabaab Avenue, Combat 18 Boulevard and Savile Row).

In the glory days this type of scatter gun strategy was almost singularly the domain of direct mail, the door stop strategy that would sleep well on a less than 1% response, the irony being that the door drop learnings are now being relearnt by 21st Century digital direct mail (DDM). We know for a fact that 99% of all door drops would end up soiling the carpet of some utterly disinterested party or were, in certain instances, shocking to the recipient. One can’t help but wonder how many businesses; unwittingly tried to convince alcoholics in remission to buy their cheap wine, or those with life threatening nut allergies to ‘sample our new nut bar’, or tried to persuade sex offenders to holiday in their family resort? Know your audience.

For the record - I suspect any programmatic seller would cream themselves at the prospect of a whole 1% hit rate because sadly, I suspect the DDM hit rate is considerably less because actual DM, for all its failures, at least delivered something physical you had to spend a few seconds with walking it to the bin, a much longer life span than a clicked banner…

So what’s the solution? Well, given the world seemingly isn’t in a hurry to revert back to tried, tested, effective Cone basics, not to mention precision targeting and ‘conventional media’ (you can’t hide from a great poster), we have to pray that the ‘brilliant tech’ we are determined to commit our futures to will deliver on our belief that it will ultimately solve the problem it created.

But how to solve the seemingly impossible challenge of accurately identifying the content of images and videos, given that almost all uploaders are not in the least bit interested in adding well considered, highly descriptive, useful metadata tags – especially the content advertisers would give anything to avoid. That's the really dark stuff, likely deliberately tagged with impenetrable descriptions, if at all? Which supremacist/pornographer/criminal/conman/extremist/pervert is really going to respectfully consider [Google search bar input] and spend 20 minutes precisely tagging every bit of their vile content?

Imagine: ‘Fanatical Islamic terrorist in dirty black outfit and woven scarf sat on an old Ford pick-up truck holding the severed head of American journalist in Aleppo in front of a tank, a rabid dog, my wife, my home and my family. And, is that a drone…?’ In truth, there can never be and will never be the perfect metadata accompanying visuals because life is just too infinitely varied. We need a system that looks at every image and video and understands what is in it WITHOUT the need for metadata; imagine what a system like this could unlock, especially given that ‘every picture speaks a thousand word tag?’ Or consider that by 2020 there will be 65 trillion images and 6 trillion videos online, most of which will be invisible to ‘Google it’; like dark matter – we know they exist, but we cannot see them with current tech.

A serious breakthrough is required. An as yet unidentified system that behaves in a way that no program ever has to date, or to be more specific a system that thinks like we do, that can recognise and identify things like we do and as instantaneously as we do too.

I guess we assume that if such a system existed we would call it AI, which would be close, but in this instance AHI (Artificial Human Intelligence) feels more the requirement. Pixsee is a British business developed by Russian mathematicians that were trained to help develop the Russian space program. It recognises images and video in a manner as close to humans as is currently possible. Using DNN (Wiki it) is has the ability to look at a billion pixels and based on their configuration (and sequence in the case of video) can tell you precisely what they represent, in image terms - regardless of any information contained in the metadata. Combine it with metadata in URL’s and in the text on a page and you have a system that identifies very nearly all contentious material. Including video.

This should come as something of a revelation for ANYONE whose careers and businesses rely on other people’s content. A machine that sees like we do; that can confidently determine a violent and bloody car accident from an automotive sales video, a boxing match from a street brawl, a plate of food from a pool of vomit, a sausage from an erect penis and on the delicate subject of the biggest problem of all – a machine that recognises pornographic content of all kind. Yes, it’s the magic dust that both brands and their cohorts have been desperate for for years, to eliminate the scandals brought about by machine based inefficiencies that agencies are now being forced to admit exist, it is set to make the online world a safer place for us all.

It’s great that such mind boggling digital alchemy is finally riding to the rescue, but in truth – if I were a marketing director, would I honestly place my budget into DDM with a way less than 1% hit rate and (as things stand) a 12% utter cock up rate? No, I would get ‘back to basics’ and apply some rigour to ‘finding them, meeting them, inspiring them’ and when I do I will be confident in the knowledge that way more than a derisory 1% will follow.

There-in however, lies a little comfort for all shamed brands out there, chances are the actual content of the advert that found its way into Scuzz Alley was void of any real potential to engage with their audiences anyway – I am fairly sure not one of their actual customers noticed because they were almost certainly somewhere else at the time. But the world’s media noticed – big time, so best get your house in order before it happens again.

Bil Bungay is a co-founder of BMB

Bil Bungay

All by Bil