Digital Transformation Brand Safety Brand Strategy

It’s not just the TV ecosystem — brand safety needs an unbundling makeover, too

By Andrew Serby | Executive vice-president of strategy and marketing

July 21, 2022 | 7 min read

In a rapidly-evolving digital ecosystem, it’s time for brand safety and suitability players to take a page from the book of the television and streaming industries. It’s time to unbundle and innovate measurement in brand safety, argues Zefr’s Andrew Serby.

Puzzle pieces on table

Do brand suitability and safety measurement frameworks require some breaking up? / Adobe Stock

Brand safety technology hasn’t changed in five years, while media consumption has migrated nearly entirely towards platforms. It’s time for marketers to reassess what they’re paying for.

In the media industry, “bundle” is a loaded term. Ben Thompson’s canonical 2017 piece in Stratechery still resonates: In it, he explains how large companies use bundling to justify high margins and stickiness — even when only one or two services anchor the entire bundle. Customers must pay for everything in order to get the one or two items they can’t live without.

In a bundle, each service does a “job,” per Thompson. He takes the television bundle as his primary lens. TVs’ jobs are to inform, entertain and communicate. When competitors come along and offer a better, standalone version of the “job” — for example, Netflix providing a better form of entertainment, or Google a more effective way to inform — then the value of the TV’s bundle breaks down.

Bundles are relatively common, not only for consumer products, but in many business verticals as well. In adtech and marketing tech, bundling has extended the life of some widely used products that frankly have not kept pace with shifting consumer and brand preferences. But unbundling pressures have finally mounted for a number of these players.

A great example of this can be found in the digital ad measurement space — particularly in verification.

Breaking down bundles

Most in the marketing and media industry are aware of the TV currency trials that have played out over the last nine months or so, as networks and agencies — fed up with the research gatekeeper that has long dominated TV measurement — finally open the door to new, advanced methodologies.

Kelly Abcarian, executive vice-president of measurement and impact at NBCUniversal, has led the charge here, highlighting the dozens of alternatives to Nielsen in areas like audience verification, attribution, media quality and more.

Nielsen has attempted to justify its position and maintain the status quo but has met resistance in light of the organized testing and standardization efforts undertaken by networks, agencies and brands.

There’s an important lesson here for the brand suitability vertical: the owner of any set of bundled products will fight hard to preserve the integrity of the bundle in the face of new competition. In the case of brand suitability, and measurement more broadly, bundlers have been aided by an absence of centralized standards, which has created uncertainty about emerging solutions.

The shift happening in brand suitability

Just as self-organization by networks and agencies has opened the door to unbundling, a similar movement is underway in brand suitability. This shift has arrived thanks to a decision by the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) to introduce a framework for universal category definitions.

GARM, founded in 2019 by the World Federation of Advertisers, has spearheaded a set of publicly available definitions for the risk areas that the world’s largest brands and agencies care about, with varying levels of risk associated with each definition. For marketers, adopting this framework presents an opportunity to understand if their verification vendor is providing insights that are accurate to a rubric, or simply labeling content as “risky” in order to upsell the cost of the bundle.

If every company has a different suitability taxonomy, there’s no way to measure accuracy. For brands, demanding a common language around brand suitability will keep vendors accountable and provide actionable insights from reporting that can be used for future campaigns. Even if a marketer eventually chooses to stick with their current bundle, adopting the GARM framework will enable comparisons between other measurement providers into the foreseeable future. And that’s important, since every indicator suggests the future of brand safety measurement will look very different from the past.

Consider: 74% of digital ad dollars now accrue to the largest consumer platforms — including Google, Facebook, Amazon and increasingly, TikTok — according to Ebiquity’s analysis. No surprise there. Consumers are investing more of their time and data in these environments.

Now also consider that most third-party brand suitability tools were built for websites — not for scrolling video, stories or any of the other app-based interfaces that dominate the market today.

Media created for these new spaces has very little in common with content on the open web. There’s more of it for one, and it’s published far more often by a much larger number of creators than can be found on websites. This sheer volume and publishing frequency is often referred to as the “velocity” of content.

At the same time, walled garden content is often formatted differently. It’s image-rich, informal in structure and increasingly includes video elements that are harder to analyze and categorize than text-based media.

Yet brands still look to open web verification vendors to report on these environments. This is unsustainable.

Achieving next-level suitability

There was a moment, in the last iteration of the web, where it made sense to combine viewability, fraud, invalid traffic, brand safety and brand suitability measurement into a unified reporting structure. But this turned out to be premature.

From today’s vantage point, it’s clear we’re heading once more into uncharted waters, defined by the continued rapid rise of new walled gardens and radically new content formats. Our existing frankenstacks, bolted together from assorted components, clearly aren’t up to the job.

The debate on the future of audience measurement, with incumbents like Nielsen battling emerging players like and VideoAmp, is just the first salvo in a more universal unbundling of current measurement tools. As a next step, brands will need to embrace a common purpose and commit to accurate measurement of content suitability in the digital spaces where their customers are now firmly rooted.

Andrew Serby is executive vice-president of strategy and marketing at Zefr.

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