The advertising walls are closing in on Google now the world's largest advertising groups are reassessing their relationship with the online behemoth following more revelations that ads are still appearing next to inappropriate content on YouTube.
Havas and GroupM have warned the business, which is tipped to control 40% of the online ad market this year, that stronger safeguards are needed to protect their clients. While ad misplacement is not a new issue, it has never been as top of mind for marketers and, more importantly, chief executives as it is now that many are questioning whether they have over-invested in digital.
This debate, which Google and Facebook sit at the heart of, hit new heights this week.
It began with fighting talk from agency bosses and trade bodies at an industry conference, urging Google to use the money it’s making “hand over fist” from ads that appear next to inappropriate content to come up with a solution.
But that talk quickly turned to action following a further revelation in The Times that Google had been summoned before the government to explain why ads for the government had been running alongside inappropriate video content - including terrorist propaganda. Consequently, the government alongside The Guardian, Channel 4, L’Oréal, all of whom had also had their ads misplaced, unanimously announced this morning (17 March) that they would cancel all advertising on Google and YouTube until further notice.
Hours later, Havas Group UK said that it had paused all budgets going through YouTube and Google Display Network until it is confident the necessary standards are in place.
“Our position will remain until we are confident in the YouTube platform and Google Display Network’s ability to deliver the standards we and our clients expect," said Paul Frampton, chief executive and country manager at Havas UK.
"Our teams are working with the brands we represent to select alternative partners where we are confident of the third party verification and safety guarantees.”
In the background, other holding companies and their media agencies have been advising clients on how they should spend on the platform.
GroupM confirmed to The Drum that it is not advising clients to axe spend, but is instead urging them to be “mindful of the implications and join us in working with Google and others to meet our collective brand safety standards". This includes a series of advisories the media house has launched to steer clients around the risks associated on not just Google or YouTube but also the other global online media owners such as Facebook and Snapchat.
In an email sent to clients “to inform of the risk,” the WPP agency said: “YouTube is un-curated. It deploys brand safety technology but it is not infallible. We have communicated at the highest levels with Google and are working toward a solution in respect of un-curated content, if there is one.
“While it is likely that the brand adjacencies to bad content are minimal, however horrible, an additional immediate issue in respect of brand reputation is the featuring of these instances in media with far wider reach than the concerning adjacency itself.”
GroupM’s chief digital officer Rob Norman, shed further light on how it plans to quell advertiser concerns and explained why pulling ad spend from Google won't be part of its own response just yet.
"What we’ve tried to do is give people a quantification and risk assessment and let them make their own decisions from that because we believe that’s our role," he said. "Our view is that we are responsible for advising our clients as best as we can because they do use all of these platforms for a reason and the reason is they think they derive value from their advertising so to cut off line of communication unilaterally would be inappropriate."
He said his clients’ are “highly concerned” about brand safety but did reveal that “not a lot” had asked for an “immediate withdrawal” from YouTube in the wake of the recent revelations.
Elsewhere, Dentsu Aegis wouldn’t comment on its own response but did tell The Drum that it takes “digital ‘brand safety’ extremely seriously and pursue every possible measure to protect our clients".
“We have a robust approach in place, which we constantly review against the latest technologies in the marketplace to ensure we are at the forefront of managing the risks,” a spokesperson said.
“We place immense focus on our compliance policies, practices and controls, and our brand safety measures are considered industry leading. As programmatic advertising continues to grow, we need to be ever vigilant and responsive, working together to ensure brand advertising only appears in brand safe environments."
A statement from Publicis Media reads: "Publicis Media is committed to being at the forefront of rigorous brand safety, viewability and verification standards and protocols. We hold all publishers, including Google and YouTube, accountable to ensure that the highest standards of advertising are consistently met. Clearly, Google has fallen short of these standards. We are reviewing how we work with them moving forwards."
Similarly, Omnicom's statement revealed a degree of frustration at Google's efforts to date: “While we are working with our clients on an individual basis to address the immediate situation, there needs to be a sustainable solution. We are specific about what is and what is not an acceptable environment for our clients – this is not open to interpretation. Google offers highly relevant solutions for many marketers, but it must effectively manage its process to maintain advertiser confidence.”
The Drum was awaiting comment from the Interpublic Group at the time of writing.
The speed at which the screws have tightened on Google will have undoubtedly taken many clients by surprise. L’Oreal’s was one advertiser that today pulled spend, yet just weeks before its top marketer in the UK had lauded his confidence in knowing where its media money goes each day.
“We’re really clear where our money is going against technology, agency fees, DSP or whatever it might be,” Hugh Pile told The Drum earlier this month, later adding that it does a “huge amount” to strangle the likelihood of its ads appearing against the wrong content, whether that’s by constantly updating both whitelists and blacklists or tasking the likes of Integral Ad Science and Moat to continually analyse its placements.
On the other side, Google hasn’t commented on the individual cases, nor would it be pressed on a response to Havas’ decision to halt spend. Instead, it referred to a blog post written by new UK managing director Ronan Harris who said that it invests “millions of dollars every year and employ[s] thousands of people to stop bad advertising practices".
“Just last year, we removed nearly 2 billion bad ads from our systems, removed over 100,000 publishers from our AdSense program, and prevented ads from serving on over 300 million YouTube videos.”
Harris said that it’s begun a thorough review of its ads policies and brand controls, and “will be making changes in the coming weeks to give brands more control over where their ads appear across YouTube and the Google Display Network".
It was summoned to appear in front of Cabinet Office ministers after which Yvette Cooper MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said the “lack of effort and social responsibility it is showing towards hate crime on YouTube is extremely troubling".
"It is inexplicable to us that Google can move very fast to remove material from YouTube when it is found to be copyrighted, but that the same prompt action is not taken when the material involves proscribed organisations and hateful and illegal content,” she said.
However, Google has argued that the problem lies in the sheer volume of content and videos that are being uploaded every day, saying it simply can’t verify all of it before allowing ads to appear. The solution that ISBA, agencies and brands are calling for is to stop monetising unverified content.
Norman explained how a potential solution from Google and its peers could play out: "If you think about it, with the volume of content that’s uploaded to YouTube and any other un-curated platform, a technological solution might be difficult and in the same way that the cycling authorities had a little bit of trouble keeping up with the pharmaceuticals, I have a feeling that the platforms might have a little bit of trouble keeping up with the cheats, terrorists and the villains….they [online platforms] may be forced to use a whitlelists strategy and say 'what we’ve done is we’ve actually had human-free curation of any content that we will now attempt to monetise through the placement of advertising' – that could happen."
The other option, opined Norman, could be the use of blacklists, "built by both technology and some degree of personal curation".
Johnny Hornby, the founder and chief executive of The&Partnership – who this week demanded Google come up with a tangible solution by June – said he wanted three things to happen:
- Allow the opening of all platforms to third-party ad verification technology for fraud and brand safety.
- Create and enforce more robust rules and guidelines for content categorisation.
- De-monetise all content that cannot be guaranteed as brand safe, especially new content.
But it also comes down to clients not buying cheap media. As The Drum reported earlier this year, the issue continues to grow as clients press agencies to secure them media at lower rates.
“It’s down to us to as clients to be taking back control of that ecosystem and to understand how are money is working for us,” said the Stephan Loerke, the chief executive of the World Federation of Advertisers earlier this year.
“The reason for ad fraud is ultimately complacency by clients. We have delegated responsibility of the purchase process without properly resourcing in-house. We have accepted tech stacks which aren’t transparent and can lead to conflict of interest and we have relied on KPIs which have turned out not be right.”