Advertising Alibaba South China Morning Post

How SCMP ensures brand safety for advertisers during its coverage of Hong Kong protests


By Shawn Lim | Reporter, Asia Pacific

July 15, 2019 | 8 min read

Hong Kong has been rocked over the last month by its citizens protesting over a controversial extradition bill and expressing their unhappiness with how China is governing the island. The South China Morning Post has been at the forefront of the coverage of the protests, covering it extensively.

Advertisers have asked to pause or postpone content campaigns because of the ongoing protests and Alibaba-owned publisher’s eight-month-old in-house agency, Morning Studio has worked to accede to their requests.

The 116-year-old publication wants to lead the global conversation about China, but at the same time, ensure it has a brand safety mechanism that attempts to make sure that every single ad impression it serves is brand-safe across its products. It wants brands to feel confident they can trust SCMP look after their brand.

This is important for SCMP, whose chief operating officer, Elsie Cheung, previously told The Drum that the publisher pride itself as a product technology company that trades in truth.

“We do three things, and there's a three-layer process. The first thing we do is, at an editorial level, if something is going to be unsafe and very hard news, it is important that we cover it and block that completely from advertising,” says Ian Hocking, the vice president of digital at SCMP.

“The next thing we do is, we apply a standard keyword block list to all campaigns to ensure that words that you would not want to be around your brand do not appear."

“And then lastly we employ a third-party AI-based brand safety tools, like Grapeshot to ensure that, if we do happen to miss something, somebody else, some other technology is there to ensure that that is blocked at source.”

Hocking, together with Johnny Ng, the director of marketing solutions for Morning Studio at SCMP and Michala Sabnani, the director of branded content at SCMP, was speaking to The Drum at the publisher’s inaugural Asia Matters event in Singapore, which aimed to showcase how marketers can work with Morning Studio.

Ng notes that it is easier for SCMP because it can control the advertising content, so for it to partner a client while covering the protests, SCMP can pause the campaign and can remove the entry points very easily.

“And that's just part the kind of agency service we offer to brands where we recognize that, ‘Okay, some changes need to be made because of what's happening in the world’,” he adds.

There is an ongoing debate in Hong Kong about how the media is covering the protests. Brands like Pocari Sweat and Pizza Hut have stopped running ads with Hong Kong’s largest television station, Television Broadcasts (TVB), accusing it of being pro-Beijing when covering the protests.

First-party data and programmatic

Publishers like the BBC have previously spoken to The Drum about the importance of leveraging programmatic technology and using audience behavioral data to boost the reach of their branded content.

For SCMP, it uses its data in a myriad of ways from AI recommendation, to personalization, through to being able to target people with advertising that gives them a good experience on the site.

Hocking, who used to be the head of programmatic at News UK, says the publisher can only do that by working with data management platforms (DMP) and having an in-house team of data scientists and engineers that allow SCMP to take raw pieces of data and turn them into real insights.

“It is a mission for SCMP to be able to describe our audience and the way that they view us better than anybody else. Therefore, create unique opportunities for advertisers and brands,” the Brit explains.

“This is something that you will see us significantly increase over the next six months. We are in the process of running a lot of tests internally to find the best way to do data capture, whether that is based on people's experience and behaviors on-site, but also data capture through things like polls, quizzes, and surveys and turn that data into real fast in real-time actionable, targetable data that will help improve our customer's success.”

He also reveals that SCMP is transitioning from an old DMP to a new one, but declined to go into details because the new DMP is still in the testing phase, only saying that the new platform will transform its capabilities.

“A publisher that takes information in hindsight and applies it later to someone that can take actions in the moment and change the outcomes and the targeting associated to that user in the moment,” says Hocking.

“But also scale the insights and just say that it's meaningful for scaled buy because I'm sure we've all experienced when you, you know, you may be able to find people that live in Hong Kong that loved dog walking on the weekend, but is that truly a scalable audience?”

“What we aim to be able to do is, is to find scalable insights that are going to drive a real-world return on investment for providers.”

Personalized content

The use of first-party data to create personalized content is increasingly important, as more consumers are rewarding brands that produce good branded content with their attention, interest, and loyalty.

Morning Studio recognizes that it may not capture all of consumers attention through traditional online advertising, says Ng, which is why it works with advertisers to produce partner content with the belief that it is more about engaging consumers and getting them to spend more time with SCMP products, like a value exchange with a link to consumers’ experience on the site.

Sabnani adds that with every single project that Morning Studio creates, it tries to really put SCMP’s audience at the heart of that content because the publisher wants to create authentic stories infused with brand messages. She claims SCMP has seen that if there is good content, it will perform well.

For example, one of the earliest campaigns that Morning Studio did was with Tiffany & Co. The luxury jewelry giant had an engagement store pop-up that they wanted to promote in Hong Kong and instead of using ads to drive traffic to the pop-up store, it worked with Morning Studio to create a campaign about love stories in Hong Kong.


“We asked real Hong Kong couples how they first met and how they engage. And that brand, that video had Tiffany branding infused in it, and we saw that when we released that sub-series called "Celebrating Love," it was the top-performing video and top-performing article on as a whole,” explains Sabnani.

“We were very honest and upfront and the branding of Tiffany was very clearly infused in that piece of content, but it didn't matter because it was good content.”


Even though brands have fully embraced the content-first approach, and have the teams and partners in place to deliver content that consumers want, there has been a trend of in-housing functions like content production.

Making a case for SCMP, Sabnani argues the publisher has been creating complex content for the past 116 years, which means it is very hard for a brand to take that entire skillset, and instill it in one or two of their staff in-house.

She adds that agencies and publishers also have the talent to create content and flesh out what a brand’s content strategy is. This can prevent brands from having a narrow lens and narrow-minded approach to content.

“You need an outside person to sort of flush out the ideas, flush out the strategy, go back and forth with you. For Morning Studio, we put a lot of onus on strategy and performance,” explains the former CNN producer.

“It is not just about creating the content, it's working with like Johnny, me and Ian's team to make sure that content is consumable, is in the right places. It's attracting the right retention. There's a lot of technology and strategy that goes behind the distribution of content.”

From a brand's perspective on working with a publisher that is covering their controversies, The Drum recently spoke to Huawei about why it is still making ads with BBC Worldwide in times of bad news.

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