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Havas Media joins CAN as buyers mull ‘unintended consequences’ of tech


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

October 9, 2020 | 7 min read

Havas Media Group is the first agency holding group to join the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) and commit to its rigorous manifesto. Greg James, global chief strategy officer at Havas Media, shares why he signed Havas's 10,000 staff to the initiative.

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Havas Media has become the first holding firm to join CAN.

CAN, a coalition of more than 70 organisations launched in 2018, has been educating advertisers about how they can be more ‘conscious’ of the impact they have on the wider world. By driving the adoption of its manifesto, which aims to tackle fraud, diversity woes, data consent, the endangerment of children, the funding of hate speech and misinformation, it hopes to raise awareness of ways to clean up the trade.

Greg James, global chief strategy officer, says Havas Media is the first agency holding company to join because it has had a “head start” on conscious advertising.

“It’s true that committing to the manifestos of CAN is a big job – we all have a lot of responsibility. We were already on this journey since the whole mission statement of the agency is focused on making a meaningful difference to brands, businesses and people – all stakeholders.“

As well as the six elements of the manifesto, the Vivendi-owned network group has committed to 10 internal initiatives through its Mx system. James says it has invested in understanding how brands act in meaningful ways for 11 years. But it has only focused on the media in the last two years; industry-wide, it’s a more recent consideration.

We know that fake news and deliberate misinformation have been funded by ad dollars, and with telecom giants grappling with how they may have fed the 5G misinformation conspiracies, for example, brands are awakening to the issue.

James says: “Tackling fake news and misinformation is one of the key manifestos of the CAN. We can all take actions today to make sure advertising is funding reputable, high-quality and publicly accountable media. Brands appearing alongside misleading or inaccurate content have received less focus within the broader category of brand safety but it’s a real reputational risk.“

Ahead of the US presidential election, James explains that “partisan content is part of a vibrant and healthy debate, but misleading media is not”. It‘s a distinction that hasn‘t been gained much ground in the wider brand safety debate. But bad faith actors are now being sidelined.

Havas insists on of having a human in the media mix and refers to NewsGuard nutrition labels as well as resources like the Media Bias/Factcheck site and the Global Disinformation Index to stay on the right side of the line.

The threat posed by an unattended algorithm cannot be overstated. “Beware of blocklists and overly zealous contextual targeting. A properly curated marketplace can deliver scale without the need for open exchange so there’s no need to employ blunt filtering approaches. If contextual or semantic filtering must be used, curate it as you would media,” advised James.

Next, he talks up the concept of a ”media experience” for clients, which he outlines as nothing less than a holistic understanding the impact of each ad dollar spent. “From people to platforms, from products to pitches, agencies must reinvent themselves and deliver on this promise to go beyond a media plan and develop a positive media experience for clients.”

To do that, the industry must look beyond KPIs like reach and frequency and consider the three Cs – connection, context and content. The industry is playing catch-up with the technology it has developed these last few years, and James says there should be a focus on developing and ensuring “good practice”, something which requires proactive, rather than reactive, policies.

“The first big symptom was ads appearing next to unsavoury content. This symptom was largely ‘cured’ through the application of technology including; transparency into where ads were placed and how they got there; better controls and filters; and more automated ‘algorithmic‘ approach. But there’s been an unintended consequence here and these technologies have often been applied injudiciously to blanket block certain types of content.”

James points to LGBTQIA+ content being demonetized because “overzealous blocklists” have wholly excluded them, as well as vital Covid-19 news being demonetized despite it touching most news stories for a matter of months.

“Carefully curating sites for inclusion focused on media that matters is a good start,“ he says.

It’s indicative of a wider “over-reliance on technical solutions to technical problems,“ he added. “A blunt approach to brand safety isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. Machines simply aren’t good at insights and real human experiences, so they lack the nuanced judgment (or any judgement) to manage what is ‘safe’ for brands.”

He sees a few solutions. The first is a ’human-led approach’ that means always having an expert on hand to consider the application of tech at every stage of the process. And with the control in the hands of humans, the hiring practices putting those humans in place must be considered. Would niche media have been demonetized for so long if the industry was that bit less homogenous in its hiring? James says: “This helps us to understand where technology can be antagonistic and bring in human oversight and conscience to correct for this.”

Harriet Kingaby, co-chair of CAN, has put out a call to action for more agencies to join: “Now more than ever, it is critical for the advertising industry to come together and fight harmful content and misinformation from being spread in online environments. Advertising funds the internet, and with this power comes great responsibility. Brands and advertisers can and must do more.

“We’re extremely pleased to welcome Havas Media Group to the Conscious Advertising Network, in doing so, taking a vital step to encourage a greater consideration of ethics within advertising and ensuring industry ethics catches up to the technology of modern advertising.”

Previously, Jack Dubbins, co-founder and co-chair of CAN talked The Drum through why it is especially important ethics don’t take a backseat during the pandemic.

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