Shortcomings in the way agencies purchase media has flustered the industry amid the most recent ad misplacement furore, but perhaps the real issue lies with suppliers such as Google DoubleClick yet to adhere to industry standard safeguards in the UK?
While many agencies are guilty of not knowing where their clients' ads will show, their efforts to know have been frustrated by suppliers that won’t sign up to safeguards even amid the current media transparency and online brand safety debate.
Consequently, agencies are pushing suppliers to clarify their commitment to curbing ad misplacement via the Digital Trading Standards Group (DTSG) principles following an investigation by the Times that implied media buyers were to blame for ads appearing next to inappropriate content.
ISBA, the UK trade body representing the interests of brand-side marketers, confirmed to The Drum that it was urging agencies and their adtech suppliers to back DTSG, as they "will only gain ground and benefit brand safety if they are discussed in detail between client and agency and enshrined in contract".
There is no denying that the latest ad misplacement revelations are worrying, and brands are right to protect themselves. Indeed, ads from Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Thomson Reuters were among those cited in the recent investigation by the Times, and all three reacted with wholesale changes to their media strategies.
However, commentators have been quick to blame technology, and this doesn’t tell the whole story or resolve the issue. Rather than point fingers, advertisers are advised to see it is a much-needed wake-up call to look at what is working (extremely well) and make quality a key focus for every element of buying and selling media online.
ISBA director general, Phil Smith, says: “Here advertisers must take the lead. ISBA's media services framework was designed to bring greater clarity, transparency and accountability to client/agency dealings and it includes specific provisions for brand safety and DTSG principle adherence."
He goes on: “The contract template has already been used by major advertisers and is now beginning to gain ground in the agency community. Marc Pritchard's recent IAB speech and the Times expose have fuelled renewed interest in its adoption."
Despite reclining from its earlier measurement stance, Google is resisting DTSG
Teads is one supplier that seemingly replied accordingly, having agreed to the DTSG principles within a week after the Times’ expose, taking the number of participants up to 35, similarly with search retargeting outfit Captify. But others, including Google-owned DoubleClick, have yet to get on board despite pressure from advertisers.
In the case of Google, it let its DTSG accreditation lapse at the end of last year and sources close to the matter say it is not yet certain to renew. This is despite the serving of ads against suspect content happening on YouTube during the recent uproar.
The world’s biggest advertiser Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) insistence on vendors using the TAG MRC-validated standards appears to have forced Google's hand, with it opting to embrace the global standard, rather than have to adhere to a UK-specific set of guidelines as stipulated by UK trade bodies.
The Drum contacted Google for comment on the state of affairs, with a company spokesman confirming that it was “in active discussions” with UK trade bodies over the matter.
"Google has some of the strongest brand safety standards in the industry. We are strongly supportive of cross industry standards for brand safety that are robust, global in nature and recognisable by the wider industry. We are in active discussions with The Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards in the UK and Ireland about our certification,” adds the spokesman.
The brand-side opinion
Pritchard's statement is one that has echoed around the world. In a statement issued in the initial aftermath of the Times expose Stephan Loerke, chief executive of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), echoes this concern at the lack of transparency in the automated media trading space, particularly as it neared $19.5bn globally.
“A recent WFA study shows that this now, on average, represents 16% of our (large multinational) members' global budgets, up from 10% two years ago,” he adds.
Loerke goes on to say: “WFA members have already been taking action to deal with the issue of ads appearing against inappropriate content often by limiting the amount of 'run of exchange buys' within their investment. Our recent programmatic study found that WFA members are increasingly [67%] turning to private exchanges, which promise better quality inventory."
A closer look at why ad misplacement keeps happening
The fact that ad misplacement occurs on a regular basis is arguably one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry, but the latest controversy and subsequent spate of finger-pointing demonstrate the need for greater scrutiny .
The inherent risk with UGC
Amir Malik, Trinity Mirror programmatic director, points out that much of the suspect content highlighted in the initial investigation was served on Google-owned YouTube, and that despite the move towards advertising automation bringing with it a lot of efficiencies, there were new issues for the industry to collectively tackle.
In particular, he argues, the investigative series demonstrates the suspect nature of user-generated content (UGC), as well as a need for more stringent regulation on the adtech space.
“This shows just how much spend goes towards UGC as we move towards automation,” he says, adding that adtech is outside of the jurisdiction of most advertising authorities, such as bodies like the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
“Accountability needs to be brought to bear,” Malik adds. “Much of this happens [despite multiple previous instances of similar instances] because of penny-pinching, and bad practice.”
Agencies under fire
Rob Norman, GroupM’s chief digital officer, explains how his unit opted to do restrict purchasing inventory from open exchanges a number of years ago, as “less bad actors appear on the less-shady side of the street”.
However, he points out that it is impossible to 100% guarantee brand safety when automated systems are at play, and further takes umbrage with what he deems to be the press’s selective reporting of agencies’ role in programmatic trading.
“I’m not preaching complacency, but I am asking for some sense of perspective,” he says, pointing out that literally only the bare minimum of ads are served against undesirable content.
He further points out that the nature of Google’s offering, both in terms of YouTube as well as its search engine and the democratisation it brings to the world’s information, plus the ability to serve ads against it, is by its very nature vulnerable to such instances.
“If you democratise anything then it will inevitably be open to bad actors,” he says, adding that conversations he has had with Google in recent days have proven just how concerned it is about ad misplacement.
“One thing that Google can never do is 100% guarantee that it will rid itself of such content,” he says pointing out that such bad actors will try to confuse Google’s safeguards.
“Brand safety tools are only as good as their taxonomy of coding,” he adds. “If a site has a picture of Adolf Hitler, but then coded to make it look like Mariah Carey, then it can be difficult.”
Further discussing the popular depiction of media agency networks, he points out that many have ignored the role that media agencies (particularly his own) have played in the formation of industry-wide bodies geared towards cleaning up the automated media trading sector, such as TAG.
Although not specifically referencing News Corp, Norman’s comments come only a few days after News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson came out with a bare-faced challenge to media agencies when speaking to investors.
“Ad Agencies and their programmatic ad networks are also at fault, as they sometimes artificially aggregate audiences, and these are then plied with content of dubious provenance: the agencies win; the fabricators of the take win; and advertisers and society both lose,” he told investors on a financial analysts’ call.
Why whitelists aren't always adhered to
Brands normally employ their media agencies to use their brand safety technology to form whitelists which they then use as a proscribed list of media outlets to serve ads against. However, as raised by GroupM’s Norman, the sheer scale of media being transacted in an automated fashion, makes this difficult.
Additionally, industry sources are quick to raise the fact that many of the offending ad placement would have taken place as the result of the implementation of the media plan involving ad retargeting technology.
This then means that the aforementioned whitelists are not as strictly adhered to, according to some, as whitelists are often not required for the retargeting leg of the campaign in order to inflate the volume of clicks, this can results in no page verification tool being required.
Wayne Blodwell, founder and chief executive at The Programmatic Advisory, emphasises the need for adtech scrutiny, adding that every type of targeting tactic requires significant brand safety scrutiny, particularly with the construction of whitelists, and blacklists.
“I don’t buy into the fact that whitelists should not be used across certain tactics because it limits scale,” he says. “With very well designed whitelists only a fraction of reach is lost but the % likelihood of appearing against poor content is significantly reduced – this has been continually verified by third party providers”.
The moving target of brand safety
However, the issue of brand safety is “a moving target” and the types of non-brand safe environments are very emergent, observes Paul Silver, chief operations officer at adtech outfit MediaIQ. He adds that while huge progress has been made, the industry has to constantly keep abreast of trends. In particular, “hate news" and “fake news” are emergent threats.
Quite simply, brands must continue to invest in the adtech they employ, as well as continue to ask questions of the supply-side of the industry. “If you invest in programmatic and your partner is not leveraging pre and post methods of detection and blocking combined with committed investment to limiting the threat (domain blacklisting, fraudulent IP detection), your brand is at risk,” he says.
“More onus needs to be placed on sellers (exchanges/SSPs) to increase transparency and provide more thorough auditing. Anyone falling short of the accountable standards being set needs to face commercial penalties.”
Furthermore, clients need to know they have total control in how their budget is spent; that their content will only ever appear on the quality publications that they have selected, states Mark Bembridge, chief executive at Smartology.
"This isn’t just about brand safety - it’s because it’s good advertising," he continued. "Brands see high returns on their investment, media owners can maintain premium inventory rates and consumers see content in which they are interested."
Words by Seb Joseph and Ronan Shields