The Game of Thrones politics behind the Google brand safety furore
The fantasy and skullduggery of Game of Thrones might be a world away from Google’s ad misplacement woes and yet both dramas are filled with wildly ambitious characters tussling for influence in a competitive arena where cash is king and nobody (or no brand) is safe.
Every media executive that has waded into the debate has done so knowing full well what is at stake. Public warnings from agencies alongside private bargaining between Google and its biggest spenders are emblematic of the bigger machinations at play. Like the characters in the hit series, those caught up in the scandal have been careful to try and exploit the situation to fuel their own motives.
Given the philosophical parallels shared by the worlds of George R.R Martin’s popular series and online marketing, The Drum has reimagined all those stakeholders as houses from Game of Thrones and outlined what each group stands to win and lose as the issue unfolds.
Google casts a long shadow over the ad industry much in the same way the Lannisters influence reverberates throughout Westeros. And, being the all-powerful king of the castle, it’s had the luxury of listening to publishers, advertisers, TV executives, or agency bosses as and when it chooses. Complaints of ad misplacement and concern over fraud have been voiced for years, but in its ivory tower, Google hasn’t had to fully engage with either.
The Times expose on brands funding terrorist content could be seen a vain attempt at dethronement. Indeed, as one industry insider – who wished not to be named – says: “Publishers are desperate to get ad spend back, this was a skirmish they won but the war was already lost.”
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Nonetheless, advertisers did pull spend and faced with a revolt, Google’s hand was forced.
“Google should have done more to sort it out sooner. It had the chance in the past and this is the kick up the arse that they need. Matt Britain has previously assured that it is a tiny percentage [of ads appearing against inappropriate content] and he’s right that it’s minuscule. But just because it's small doesn’t mean it’s not an issue.”
Google has since found itself living the unofficial motto of the Lannisters - "A Lannister always pays his debts" - and is slowly but surely repaying what it's owed to advertisers for all these years when it comes to brand safety. The online giant still has some way to go, but after the backlash it swiftly embarked on a three-pronged solution focused on its policies, controls and enforcement and continues to give public updates on their progress.
“For Google, it means it can say ‘we’re giving you tools to avoid this’ and so the next time a brand advert runs next to bad content they can tell the advertisers to look at their own teams and agencies,” continues the agency executive.
“You might see a few brands asking about the alternative [to Google and YouTube] but they will discover that there isn't one.”
Until the brand safety issue fizzed to the fore, advertisers remained devoted to Google, just as House Stark remained loyal to the Baratheon-Lannister throne before Jamie Lannister thrust a certain Stark child out of a tower window.
The assault effectively gaslit the entire series, pushing long-supressed tensions to the surface – so not too dissimilar then from the Times’ ‘brands funding terror’ headline that fuelled the Google furore and caused the likes of the UK government, AT&T and Marks & Spencer to pull ad spend.
“There’s been tension bubbling under the surface for some time, now,” muses senior eMarketer analyst Bill Fisher. He believes that the brand safety story has been “cyclical” but that Google has wielded enough power “to sweep it all under the carpet and continue as if there were nothing wrong”.
Google and Facebook’s duopolistic control of the digital ecosystem is undeniable and while WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell said last week that boycotting “one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful medium, doesn't make sense,” the long-term impact of the scandal arguably puts advertisers in a strong position to negotiate with YouTube and make the case for access to improved data and viewability metrics.
Until the potential for damage to brand reputation reared its head, programmatic ad misplacement didn’t appear to be much of a concern for advertisers who were happy to chase eyeballs. Indeed, an ISBA survey that was published in January revealed that online brand safety was behind viewability, mobile advertising, programmatic trading and audience measurement in terms of top concerns for advertisers this year.
Like the Starks marketers have been one-step behind the game – but wider issues like the general mistrust in digital channels and the prominence of fake news appear to have made the Google scandal impossible for chief executives to ignore.
Like the Martells, media agencies have occupied a rarefied position on the fringes during recent political events. With the mainstream media gaze falling on the failures of the platforms and the follies of the advertisers funding them, the role agencies have played in the brand safety fiasco has largely escaped scrutiny.
At least in public. Behind closed doors, the scene has been markedly different as media buyers have been subjected to intense interrogations from some of their most cherished clients about how their brands came to appear next to extreme content and be splayed all over the Times as a result.
Why this has come as a surprise to them when brand safety was already an inescapable industry talking point long before this row blew up in the national and international press is a moot point. But the opprobrium overheard from agency conference rooms is a symptom of the crisis this has snowballed into now and is creating unwanted headlines and headaches for those at boardroom-level inside brands.
“These conversations may be taking place more discreetly and outside of the public debate, but because of the agencies’ role and responsibility as guardians of safe and effective media placement of brand inventory, they will be feeling as though they are firmly in the eye of the storm,” says David Indo, chief executive of ID Comms.
Agencies big and small have been fielding calls constantly from clients since the Times splashes started. “Like many agencies, we have clear and documented client brand safety policies, but what’s happened has occurred at a different point in the chain and it’s still impacted on our business,” says Rick Hirst, chief executive of Carat UK. “As the conduits between advertisers and media owners, we’ve been awash with time-consuming questions and probing from rightly concerned clients looking for reassurance.”
Few agency bosses were as willing as Hirst to discuss the impact they’re feeling from the Google fallout for this piece. In fact, most have revealed very little in public at all beyond their obligatory and not particularly revealing corporate statements. Of the few to have broken ranks, the most prominent is Havas UK chief executive Paul Frampton, who announced that his agency would be pausing all YouTube and Google Display Network ad spend until further notice – a position undermined later the same day by his own boss Yannick Bollore, who claimed he knew nothing about the decision and insisted that the rest of the Havas group would not be following suit.
Another outspoken voice has been The&Partnership chief executive Johnny Hornby – tipped to succeed Sir Martin Sorrell at WPP – who has urged his peers to unilaterally pull their ad spend from Google and Facebook if they haven’t fixed their brand safety and ad fraud weaknesses (by opening themselves to third-party verification) in time for June’s Cannes Lions festival. Reflecting on his ultimatum, and its likeliness to succeed, he says: “It would be a huge disappointment if the advertisers, the agencies, don’t slightly force [the platforms’] hand here. I know how powerful Google and Facebook are, but they do need to have their arms twisted a bit behind their backs.
“When there is a crisis it’s very unfortunate, but then you think let’s not waste it, let’s come out of the other end of it with this problem fixed. Let’s not let them off the hook now.”
But it’s not just platforms under pressure. Some emboldened agencies may be brave enough to go on the attack, but far more will be forced into some soul searching in the aftermath of this controversy. “Many clients will be wondering what exactly their media agencies are bringing to the table, and what it is they’re paying for,” says Greensquare partner Tony Walford. “After all, if an agency is relying on programmatic buying on a channel like YouTube, a brand owner may figure that they might as well deal with Google directly and have more control over the process. We could even see the rise of in-house trading desks in brand owners’ offices.”
Marc Pritchard, the Procter & Gamble marketer who lit the touch paper under the transparency debate with a stunning attack on the “murky at best, fraudulent at worst” media supply chain in January, this week called on agencies to consolidate their services and return to more of a one-stop shop model. With agencies’ form and function under question, could they be the power player that stands to lose the most from recent events?
“Agencies must be holding their breath until the focus turns potentially back on them and why, when this issue of brand safety has been known in the industry since 2012, they have sat on their hands,” says Darren Woolley, managing director of Trinity P3. “Advertisers clearly care about their brands, but perhaps the agencies have demonstrated that they do not exhibit the same level of brand care by allowing their clients’ advertising to appear in these inappropriate environments. More reason for advertisers to bring the media decisions in-house and eliminate the third party that has again failed to deliver on their duty of care for their clients.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean the beginning of the end for media agencies, but they will be expected to prove that they’re adding value rather than just another link in the chain. “This means that the buying part of the agency’s activity will be less important than the planning bit,” says Greensquare’s Walford. “Insight, qualitative data, strategic thinking and analysis can’t be automated as much as buying has been. Don’t forget, they are known as media buying and planning agencies.”
In a crisis that many reputable media agencies have been dragged into by less scrupulous rivals hoovering up ad space on the cheap via automated means, it is their human touch that will be needed most to resecure the confidence of their clients. The motto of the House of Martell is “unbowed, unbent, unbroken”. Whether media agencies can say the same will be revealed by their response to this crisis in the weeks ahead. Eyes down will not suffice.
House media owners
Much like the Targaryens, publishers and broadcasters used to run the media show before the advent of online media. They’ve got an axe to grind with the world’s biggest online media owner, and spurred by the Baelish Littlefinger-style machinations of Rupert Murdoch’s The Times, have been jostled into action.
Everyone from the Guardian to the Financial Times (FT), News Corp to Channel 4 has taken pot shots at Google in an attempt to prove the value of premium, trusted advertising environments. After all, when one side of the industry has been called into question, the other side has an opportunity to scoop up the leftover business.
With some of the biggest advertising groups and brands pressing pause on what they spend with Google until it can rebuild trust in its ad products, millions of dollars are now up for grabs for media owners to scoop up. Already, regional publishers such as Archant and Newsquest as well as broadcasters such as Channel 4 claim business has seen a short-term spike after the fall-out from YouTube.
“Some of the money that was going into video and YouTube, which was unquestionably just being dumped into programmatic performing channels, is now being spent directly with us as a publisher proposition,” Scott Gill, managing director of 1XL, a conglomerate of regional publishers formed to trumpet the value of local inventory over the scale of programmatic, tells The Drum.
“In terms of numbers I would expect there to be reasonable to significant growth this year partly off the back of that,” he adds.
Longer term, media companies have got a battle ahead in convincing advertisers to reevaluate their investment decisions away from a world of scale in favour of clearer context.
Hamish Nicklin, the Guardian’s chief revenue officer, last month predicted that the promise of contextual content and relevant audiences from the larger publishers will “start breaking the duopoly’s hold over all of the digital advertising budget”.
“What has happened over the last two months is the amount of people suddenly questioning the existing digital ad paradigm of low cost audiences at scale without any consideration for context - that is becoming a significant conversation. That is what the duopoly will always find hard to win, because their context is crap,” he said at the time.
But despite the recent furore around YouTube, Google and Facebook are still expected to tighten their grip on digital advertising this year to hold 60% of the growing market, according to a forecast from eMarketer .
TV’s future is more optimistic than other traditional media . TV broadcasters argue that they offer a high-quality, long-form alternative to the user-generated content that populates YouTube. In the face of the video streaming site's attempt to shift TV budgets to its platform, the latest research from Thinkbox shows that TV accounted for 94% of video ads viewed in the UK in 2016, far more than YouTube and online video as a whole.
With this in mind, Wall Street firm Pivotal Research predicted that TV could be buoyed this year by new budget allocations as a result of paused spend on Google, as they estimate a minimum -1% decline in revenue for Google this year, “assuming the problem is settled”.
Brian Wieser, senior analyst at Pivotal Research, says: "Google will have a harder time persuading advertisers to shift spending to Google – and YouTube in particular – from TV than might otherwise have been the case. It will also be less likely to receive new budgets without more scrutiny than it previously would have received.
Pocketing approximately one-in-every-two dollars of all online ad spend, Google unquestionably sits upon the throne of digital media, but 2017 has seen multiple challenges to its reign, with any number of pretenders willing to take its place.
Indeed, Google’s 2007 purchase of DoubleClick for $3.1bn could be deemed as adtech’s ascension to the top tier of online advertising. Fast-forward to the contemporary era, there are no shortage of would-be usurpers, and the current chaos in the online media game belies the widespread rancor, with which Google is regarded in, as it sits atop the summit.
Typically, this acrimony is characterised by publishers bemoaning their dwindling ad yield, media agencies equally complaining of clients pressing them down on price (ergo margins), but what they do have in common is an enmity for Google.
Whether this umbrage is caused by pure envy is for the reader to decide, but what is unquestioned is that Google’s media sales have continually gone from strength-to-strength while premium publishers (well, in terms of the content they produce, not necessarily their ad yields) have seen their fate(s) move in the opposite direction.
However, post the sale of DoubleClick to Google, countless other adtech outfits have arisen, proffering their wares to both sides in order to help them redress this imbalance either via supply-side platforms (SSP) or demand-side platforms (DSP).
So while these adtech players could be viewed as insurgents railing against the reigning ills in the industry (similar to House Baratheon) those with any experience of the automated media trading space will be aware that neither of these houses are without their own secrets to hide, and equally driven by a profit motive, much the same as Google.
Meanwhile, Facebook has been slow to voice any opinion in the furore surrounding the online advertising game, in-part because it knows that it too stands open to such criticism, as some of the earliest trade press coverage surrounding online ad misplacement scandal involved the social network.
With this in mind, it could be argued that Facebook and Google (aka the ‘walled gardens’ of the online media space) are of the same ilk, and similar to House Lannister and House Tyrell their fates are truly interlocked.
For instance, both parties are responding similarly to the allegations against them that they are (albeit inadvertently) facilitating the spread of ‘fake news’ by introducing fact checking tools designed to combat the spread of misinformation.
Both Facebook and Google are working separately with third party publishers such as The New York Times and Washington Post, in a move to better associate their platforms with quality content – a key advantage that traditional legacy publishers can claim over the ‘duopoly’ of the West Coast based giants.
Google has historically resisted the rise of header bidding, a tool (whether by design or accident) that threatens the dominance of the Google-owned DoubleClick Ad Exchange over the adtech sector, which many claim was to the detriment of premium publishers’ advertising yield.
Last month, it was revealed that Google was to relinquish the ‘last look’ advantage of its DoubleClick AdExchange (header bidding was employed by many publishers as a means of combating this in-built advantage), with the new auction dynamics seemingly a move to offset the impact of its rise.
This was preceded by last month’s news that Facebook too was tossing its hat into the header bidding ring, with the social network announcing that it will open its Audience Network to web publishers.
This service would be made available to publishers via Facebook Audience Network’s partnership with six adtech companies: Amazon Publisher Services; AppNexus; Index Exchange; Media.net; Sonobi, and Sortable, with Facebook also quick to trumpet the success of premium publishers that had also participated in its early beta testing of the technology.
Tests with the Washington Post, Daily Mail and Forbes have shown header bidding can increase revenue by 10-30%, with Matt Wheatland, the Daily Mail’s US director of programmatic, describing its introduction as “significant”.
He was quoted as saying: “By using Audience Network via header bidding we achieve yields on qualified impressions that are two to three higher than we receive from traditional exchange based demand."
Facebook’s earlier bids to challenge DoubleClick’s dominance of the online media space have not all been met with universal success with Atlas, FBX and LiveRail, notable (but not entirely successful) attempts to do so. If Facebook can rally a coalition of adtech parties with aligned interests to create significant competition for inventory demand, then its latest assault on Google’s hegemony could prove significant.
What is the end-game for the industry's Google backlash?
Media owners have emerged the victor against Google from the first round of the brand safety debate. Encouraged by the rift it has caused between advertisers and Google, publishers have been quick to pounce on doubt felt by marketers.
Down but not out for the count, Google has already hit back with a series of hires, tools and initiatives designed to reassure brands their ads are safe on its network. How far it is willing to go is still up for debate given the online giant's persistence that it is a technology business and not a media owner, therefore absolved of the same responsibilities that come with the label.
Regardless, the end-game is arguably already here for those in the industry that would see the ensuing brand safety force the likes of Google to become more transparent with the businesses that fund them.