As Zuckerberg faces Congress, GroupM brand safety chief warns more regulation will bolster walled gardens

Mark Zuckerberg faces the United States Congress this week, in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

As Mark Zuckerberg faces the United States Congress this week, in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the brand safety chief of GroupM is keen for the Facebook co-founder to press lawmakers to resist the temptation to further regulate the advertising industry.

While it may be hard for the 33-year-old Facebook chief executive to argue his case against the backdrop of his company allowing the personal data of hundreds of millions of users to be misused by Cambridge Analytica, John Montgomery is crossing his fingers that the end of the hearings will not see another form of regulation like GDPR be introduced.

Montgomery, who is the global executive vice president of brand safety at the WPP-owned media agency, tells The Drum while on a stopover in Singapore, that he is afraid that regulation can slow down growth and make things very complicated. He says GDPR is already costing the industry billions of dollars because every company in Europe now has to have a chief data protection officer, which means 28,000 new jobs have to be created.

In addition, he says regulation will also favour first parties who ask permissions, like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, which will make them stronger and is an unintended consequence.

“Having regulation helps us keep users’ data safe, but the problem of regulation is that the regulators do not understand this business as well as marketers,” explains Montgomery. “The amount of operational complexity around GDPR will cost billions of dollars. I don't know that is a good thing or a bad thing. It is good for consumers because their data will be protected, but it is very expensive for companies.”

“The more you regulate data, the more you also make it difficult for third parties to access the data, which makes the walled gardens become more powerful.”

Instead, Montgomery favours self-regulation and is hoping that when Zuckerberg goes to Washington, the steps that the Facebook co-founder announced a week ago - allowing users to have more control of their data, download and delete their data, as well as reviewing every single app on their usage of users’ data and their reach of campaigns - will be enough for lawmakers.

“These are concrete plans to help with brand safety. I think the critics are saying, “why didn't you do this before?”, it is difficult to answer, and I am not trying to make an excuse for Facebook, but the Internet is always changing and as we understand the problems that arise from the change, we can then mitigate them,” says the exec.

"That is why I hope he says we (Facebook) can do this, allow us to do this because these are the measures we have put in place after our mistakes to make safer. Don't regulate it because it will pull all the data to the centre and make us more powerful.”

Why GroupM is not abandoning Facebook

Even though the Cambridge Analytica scandal is the biggest crisis in Facebook's history, and the jury is still out on whether consumers will forgive them or not, GroupM has not noticed that users are engaging with Facebook any less than they did before and a call for #DeleteFacebook has not succeeded so far.

That is why the media agency has not advised its clients to withdraw advertising from Facebook, says Montgomery, because as long as users are using the platform and engaging with it, it is still a good advertising platform. “Users might be disappointed with Facebook, but they are not disappointed with the advertisers. I don't think there is a reputational risk for advertisers yet,” he adds.

GroupM also believes that Facebook will be able to bounce back from this scandal, just like Google, when it was found to have allowed ads from some of the biggest advertisers in the world to appear on extremist websites in 2017.

“Of course, Google were not doing anything wrong, they were just creating a platform for it. What was interesting was, the industry, for the first time, told Google that even though that it may just be your platform, you have to be responsible for it,” says Montgomery. “So, based on that, and how Facebook is responding to Cambridge Analytica, they are accepting responsibility for the first time. I am not saying they were not accepting responsibility before that, but they are now more serious about it.”

“The steps that Google took in the past year, since the extremists ad controversy in February last year, those are very constructive steps to make Google and YouTube much safer now than it was before the incident happened.”

How the industry can move forward

Montgomery is adamant that for the industry to recover from the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it should be focusing more on quality and less on the cost, even though there is a pressure on costs.

That is because, while the industry often measures against a gross cost per thousand impressions (CPM), inside a CPM, there are fraudulent inventory, no viewable inventory, no target consumers and no brand safe inventory.

What does a CPM mean to GroupM then? According to Montgomery, the agency is trying to encourage clients to pay for impressions, seen by humans, viewable, bot-free, targeted and in a brand safe environment.

Giving an example, he explains that when GroupM set the brand safety standards for viewability in the US in 2014 - 100% of the pixels in a display ad must be in view (for any amount of time) and for video, that 50% of the video must be played at the user’s initiation, with the sound on, while 100% in view – the agency found that 43% of inventory met its standards of 100% viewable display and only 22% of inventory met its standard for video viewability.

GroupM then went to its partners and vendors and told them that the more viewable inventory they give the agency, the more they optimise their sites for viewability, the more business they will get from GroupM's clients.

This allowed the agency to grow viewability from 22% to 53% over an 18-month period and give its clients additional value as it rewarded the publishers who gave viewable inventory and withheld advertising from those that did not.

“We are saying to clients that we are keeping your brand safe and limiting risks, but we will also try to prove to them that by using our method, the advertising works better as well,” says Montgomery. “The biggest enemy of brand safety is trying to put pressure on costs, without using brand safety tools to ensure the buying of quality impressions. You will pay more for quality, but it is absolutely worth it.”

Preventing the next brand safety scandal and fake news

Montgomery admits that there is no way of knowing when another brand safety scandal will hit as technology can only do so much in terms of predicting and identifying brand unsafe inventory.

He points to ads that ran alongside instructions on how to shoplift in a video appeared on YouTube two weeks ago and a video of children playing in a pool, which saw pedophiles making lewd comments among each other in the comments in 2017.

“They asked us to look at the content and it was interesting because it was not something that should be withheld. How could we have avoided that? The shoplift video, there were no bad words in there, no nudity and no extremist content. However, it is offensive content and our clients do not want to be near it,” he says.

“You can only counter it once it happens. What I worry about is how to predict where will the next issue happen. What YouTube and Facebook are doing is working with NGOs to try and understand this space, so that they can try to design safe products.”

However, as no brand or platform can look at every single eventuality, it is why GroupM does a risk assessment analysis for its clients, according to Montgomery.

“We tell them that it is impossible to be 100% brand safe on UGC platforms, but we can make it as safe as possible,” he explains. “But we make sure they understand that if we do that, there will be implications for your brand because if we whitelist everything, handpick every single site that we use, it is going to be more expensive and our reach is going to be limited because we have less access to inventory.”

Aside from failing to prevent Russian bad actors from using the platform to create fake news to deceive voters before and during the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook has also been accused of allowing fake news about Rohinyga Muslims in Myanmar to spread, inciting anti-Muslim hate crimes in the country.

A white paper report on combating ad fraud and fake news sites produced by AppNexus found that there is an unmissable link between the two problems because publishers frequently acquire traffic from third-party sources of questionable repute and knowingly create or purchase invalid traffic with the express intent of ripping off advertisers.

That is why fake news scares Montgomery even more than another brand safety scandal. “Just think about fake news, there are no bad words, but it can be very hard to spot and can even swing elections. It is much bigger than brand safety because it threatens democracy and free press. We are doing a lot about fake news, but it is also something we cannot predict where will go wrong next,” he says.

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