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Google UK MD Ronan Harris on how its love-hate relationship with advertisers is set for another twist

Branded by some as the ‘bad guy’ in the current transparency crisis, the online behemoth argues those concerns will only ever abate if advertisers work with it to move the value of media beyond price.

Google believes its own efforts to ease brands over online media’s pitfalls are only as good as their willingness to know where those pitfalls are. Only then can there be any real response from the wider industry to questions of ad fraud, brand safety and viewability that have lingered since the advent of digital advertising.

This is summed up by Ronan Harris who, as managing director of Google’s UK and Ireland markets, is at the coalface of what attendees at ISBA’s annual conference christened a seminal moment for the industry. Three months into his role, the world’s largest advertiser (Procter & Gamble) attacked the “murky at best, fraudulent at worst” media supply chain that Google is so engrained in, then, days later, the Times exposed how ads for hundreds of brands including Mercedes-Benz and Waitrose appeared on YouTube videos created by terrorist groups. Both moments pushed the transparency furore into boardrooms and for Harris, that scrutiny from the c-suite is already filtering through to early discussions he’s had with the industry.

Google “got plenty of phone calls” from concerned clients after the Times’ exposé, he admits. Some “felt comfortable and didn’t baulk” while “one or two took a deep breath” and then made the call. But to say that its sanction of an independent audit of YouTube’s ad metrics or its appearance at an annual gathering of advertisers in London are knee-jerk responses to P&G’s threat is wrong, says Harris.

“Our work with third party bodies and developing global standards started a long time before Marc Pritchard [P&G’s top marketer] made his comments earlier this year,” he continues.

Yet Harris does accept there’s a discussion to be had around what happens to an advertiser’s budget once it is poured into the open marketplace, If only to clear up the perception that it ‘marks all its own homework’ when third parties such as Nielsen and Comscore asses a portion of its ads. His argument being that it can only maintain high standards with the help of the industry.

Should a consensus materialise then the industry would expect Google to only allow websites that meet those standards on to its Doubleclick ad exchange. As yet, not all the exchanges have set out their own take on the matter.

“The conversation needs to be about the standard we want to set ourselves as an industry – going for a high standard, not a low common denominator – and then driving everyone toward it,” Harris continues.

Advertising is the lifeblood of Google, accountable for around 90% of its total revenue. But to keep growing it must continue to justify where all that money is going. Critics like WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell argue that Google et al have dodged this question for too long and aren’t doing enough for brand safety and measurement. To be fair to the online giant, some marketers have noticed a shift in attitude over the last 12 months, noting its willingness to help them make more informed media buys. Google’s problem is how it continues to fulfil this promise for a media sprawl that already encompasses a third (32.4%) of the online market.

“For a long time in my conversations with marketers their utopian ideal would be if they could get a nice report to tell them where each of the pounds were spent and what the ROI was for each of those pounds across any media, old or new,” explains Harris. “The situation we’re in today is one of lots of fragmentation and there isn’t a common currency across all media. Even in the digital world there’s not a common one and so…I think [the industry] has to collectively work toward defining what it is and then implementing it.”

Read those last two sentences back and think very hard about what Harris is envisioning here. What he is admitting, in essence, is that the walled gardens are ill-equipped to show marketers whether someone who saw an online ad then went on to buy the brand in-store. It’s a perennial problem given fresh urgency now that advertisers are untangling their own data to gauge how their spend does more than yield impressions and clicks. Sir Martin and the rest of the anti-walled garden brigade question whether Google can be trusted to deliver on this.

“I want to listen to the concerns: I want to hear them and I want to talk about what we’re doing and discuss whether there are things we can do better,” says Harris of Google’s relationship with the industry. Some of those concerns, particularly when it comes to explaining where ads might appear, might be of Google’s making. The Google executive has openly mused as to whether it got the balance wrong on educating advertisers on the complexities of the digital supply chain.

“We’re one player in an industry of 1,000 and I want to be clear about the standards that we collectively set for ourselves and that we all drive toward them," he continues. “If I can be a catalyst in that conversation, then I’m happy to do so both in my role as UK managing director but also in a personal capacity.”

Some of those early discussions have been with the Digital Trading Standards Group (DTSG), and whether Google will adhere to industry safeguards in the UK. For now, the business feels standards in the UK trail their global counterparts, though this doesn’t rule it out in the future. “I think the UK has a great position over the next couple of years to be a global leader on defining what some of those global standards are,” says Harris.

“I think at the moment TAG and some of the others are probably moving a bit faster but I want us to engage in the dialogue. My job is to make sure the UK is a great place to do advertising and a great place for Google so I’m going to be ensuring that I’ve got a dialogue with all the players in the industry here and talking about what we aspire too and hopefully getting agreement that’s the right thing and taking input from them as to whether we need to adjust our view. I want to have good global standards in every case possible and drive towards that.”

It explains why YouTube will now subject its third-party viewability reporting metrics – that is, whether people actually see an ad – to an independent audit by the MRC. Furthermore, Harris backs the “stringent guidelines” and “aggressive technology” Google uses to ensure brand safety on YouTube. Automatic checks on the text features of a video, such as video title, metadata and visual imagery are used to assess whether it can be used for advertising as well as community flags to raise inappropriate posts for review.

Again, like with Google’s previous efforts, observers question whether this is enough to ensure brand safety. YouTube currently only allows text on a page to be vetted for red flags, so brands might miss risks in an inappropriate video unless they view it manually. Should Google fail to correctly identify such content, then it becomes difficult for advertisers to purge risks from their buys, opines Paul Rowlinson, managing director of GroupM’s mPlatform business in the UK.

“YouTube is an open platform. It’s user-generated content and, in many ways, it's quite vulnerable to issues around fraud and brand safety. Google isn’t encouraging either but they’re both very difficult to control because of the scale of YouTube. There’s literally billions of people using that platform every day. Advertisers will step away if Google can’t give them an answer or won’t allow third-party verification,” Rowlinson adds.

For now, Google remains confident in advertiser interest in the video site, buoyed by the sheer volume of content people watch each day – one billion hours. And yet, this scale hasn’t transferred into brand budgets, which in the UK attracted 0.7% of what was spent on video ads last year. To go the extra mile, the business has big changes in mind for the site as seen by its decision to kill off its 30-second unskippable ad format.

“If you look at the depreciation of 30-second pre-roll and the arrival of the bumper six second ads then that’s the result of user behaviour,” Harris explains.

Google sees the types of ads that are creating thumb-stopping moments for viewers and it's not the longer, clunky formats, he adds. “If you’re talking about YouTube viewed on mobile phones then it’s about the six second bumper ads to grab people’s attention. A 30-second pre-roll is not a great advertising experience. People are not going to engage with it. We’ve got to evolve the formats to keep up with consumer habits.”

A promise of better ads – whether on YouTube or elsewhere – is likely to be met with caution by some advertisers suspicious of its size and market share. Sky’s director of media Andrew Mortimer said as much at the ISBA annual conference earlier this month when he warned of the online juggernaut one day usurping agencies.

“There’s a vicious circle of mistrust that exists [between advertiser and agency] and that can be bad in the short-term but in the long-term there are fundamental issues as well,” he continued. “It can also lead to disintermediation: clients having direct relationships media owners. That in itself is a huge issue because those media owners are not impartial, they’re not objective and we live in this bizarre world where we’re getting advice on how much we should spend and best practice [guidelines] in online video or social media from the people selling it to us.”

On the topic of disintermediation, Harris sees it as an outcome predicated on how much advertisers want to take in-house. “Those are very important conversations in the industry now, around where the value gets created and how you pay for that,” he explains.

“There’s immense value on the creative side of it. There is immense understanding of the audience and the different media formats out there and being able to effectively buy across that in a way that complements across the different media and gets the result. There’s a huge value in working with the data that surrounds all of this, there’s value in the measurement and the conversion metrics when you’re talking about digital media. This isn’t just about what’s the lowest common denominator when it comes to price. We all must have a clear conversation around where the value is. It’s not just a price conversation when it comes to media.”

Beyond the tricky advertising waters, Harris will steer Google’s digital skills initiative, which promises to reach millions of people across the UK and Ireland. Plans are also afoot to help businesses keep pace with how people are using mobile, whether that’s mobile web speeds or creative. Then there’s the “broader question of data”, says Harris and “how do you build for a data driven age”, helping industries to answer “how do you target first, second or third party data: how do you build teams to be able to interrogate and generate the insight and potentially use some of the early machine learning algorithms that are out there now".