Tesco media boss to publishers: 'You need to take more responsibility for brand safety'

Ashley – a former Mindshare exec – has been critical of the rising costs to achieve the kind of safety he wants from online

The gatekeeper of Tesco’s £90m media spend has criticised publishers for failing to “take responsibility” for brands' safety online, saying too much of his budget is being spent on verification tools that should be par for the course in media deals.

The concerns of Nick Ashley, Tesco's first-ever head of media, are predicated on Edelman Trust Barometer research which found that one-third of people will believe a brand to be at fault if it appears next to inappropriate content. A further 40% agree that the content against which [a brand] appears is reflective of that advertiser.

This was heightened in 2017, when Tesco found itself among those embroiled in the YouTube brand safety crisis. Ashely joined just before it was detailed how 'Big Brands Fund Terror' but in the aftermath of revelations that Facebook had been giving marketers inflated metrics, alongside some media agencies which had overstated the numbers they were handing back to brands.

“It is something we have to get right,” he noted.

How Tesco ensures its brand is safe within traditional publisher environments, not just on user-generated content platforms, has been put in the spotlight following a week in which the British media was slammed for not only running footage of the New Zealand attacks but then selling ads against it. Several advertisers, including Coral, Open Table, and London North Eastern Railway unwittingly found their ads next to the content on The Mirror, The Sun, and The Mail online.

But Ashley – a former Mindshare exec – has now been critical of the rising costs to achieve the kind of safety he wants from online publishers, which are coming directly from his digital marketing budgets.

“What's frustrating is that advertisers are being made to pay for the tech that ensures their ads are in a safe environment. I'd like to see publishers taking more responsibility,” he said on Tuesday (19 March) during a panel at Advertising Week Europe.

“Every £1 that I want to spend against my customer is being siphoned off to ad verification technology and other bits of tech. I want to trust the publisher environment that the buy is going to be safe; increasingly I can't do that because it's getting so complex.”

While instances like New Zealand attacks are a clear example of where publishers have failed brands, the Guardian’s chief commercial officer Nick Hewat said that there was a widening “grey area” of what brands consider to be a safe environment.

“The advertisers running in the paper don't have the same number of questions [about the content they’re next to] as the advertisers that are running online,” he said on the same panel.

“In fact, last week, one of the [clients] had a blocklist of words they didn't want to run against online and 21 of those words were on the page where one of his ads was running in a newspaper. There's a great level of inconsistency and there's a big difference between brand safety and brand values. It's a complex area.”

The current political crisis in the UK is one such tricky area. Some advertisers are blacklisting content that contains words like ‘Brexit’ or ‘Parliament’ because they consider that to be "toxic,” said Hewat.

A number of advertisers have confirmed this to The Drum. One senior marketer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that she was aware of clients specifically requesting their ads be blocked from appearing adjacent to Brexit stories online and in print.

For Hewat this approach doesn’t make sense as political content, no matter how divisive, is “where people are spending their time.”

But beyond that, the number of advertisers trying to ensure their ads avoid this kind of content has highlighted that there’s “no commonality” for publishers to work against.

“They almost have their own sets of rules and that's an issue for us as an industry,” he added.

Update: A Sun spokesperson told The Drum that advertisers did not pull spend from the title. "Before 9am, we took the decision to remove advertising from content relating to the terror attack on The Sun website, in light of the unfolding tragedy. The Coral homepage takeover was removed shortly after," they said.

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