Just last week I noticed on Facebook that a friend had shared a Wired article on how pro-gun Russian bots had flooded Twitter following the Florida school shooting. Immediately beneath was an ad for a premium whisky extolling the values of a life well lived. A pair of deeply uncomfortable bedfellows.
The oddity wasn’t that the ad was clearly misplaced, but that I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. Similarly, when an ex-Google employee claimed that Google moderators were approving ads and other content as ‘family safe’, despite it being in a language they didn’t understand, the outrage was noticeable by its absence.
So in this context it’s unsurprising that Bank of America has created a brand safety officer role, presumably to mitigate against similar brand mishaps.
Anxiety over the unruly and unmanaged behaviour of digital media continues to grow and advertisers are getting increasingly vocal on where they believe the networks and publishers need to improve. But brand safety is just one issue on a growing list.
In P&G’s Mark Pritchard and Unilever’s Keith Weed we have two high-profile big-budget marketers calling for greater transparency, a tighter focus on creativity, a reduction in complexity, and an end to what they see as corporate excess – ‘management, buildings and overheads’ that aren’t ‘creating value for the customer’ as Pritchard put it to the ANA.
All the network groups are facing challenges in terms of growth and share price, and Sir Martin Sorrell is right to focus WPP on faster integration because the silos of creative, media and digital still exist.
It’s why the climate is ripe for independent channel neutral creative organisations. At Leagas Delaney we believe it’s only an idea if it changes a business and as such develop media-neutral creative ideas that are rooted in commercial and consumer insight. If those ideas don’t affect a business then it’s simply an inefficient marketing tactic. Affecting a business could be it launching a new product, entering a new category, engaging a new consumer segment, changing perceptions or adapting a route to market. However, a creative organisation can only do this if it is liberated from media related commercial models, has its most senior talent focussed on addressing client challenges, and roots creative ideas in rigorous strategies with a focus on the end consumer experience.
I think the whisky ad I mentioned is an example of a pile-them-high, sell-them-cheap approach to advertising where agencies and publishers need to maximise margin on media spend – rather than a ruthless focus on creative ideas that will change the client's business.
Similarly, in digital, networks and agencies have become overly focussed on ‘being first’ rather than doing what is right for the client – leaping to the latest gleaming technology solutions, whether that’s senseless retargeting, hyperbolic artificial intelligence, or virtual reality – as if the technology itself was a silver bullet.
As the offerings and services get more complex, expensive and overwhelming we are forgetting the most critical element: human beings and the context in which we engage with content and brands.
In order to get the very best out of the incredible marketing horsepower on offer from Google, Facebook and Amazon marketers need to focus on who the consumer is, how they feel and what context a brand communicates with them in. Such integrated simplicity means asking “how is our consumer interacting with my brand, what opinion are they forming and in what context?”.
Despite all the incredible innovation, one thing that hasn’t really changed is people. We still make decisions predominantly with our hearts, we still build our own perceptions of people and brands, and we have never, do not now and never will want to be stalked or manipulated.
It’s incumbent upon us as marketers to put ourselves in the mindset of a person thumb scrolling across, and reacting to, a wide variety of topics on a newsfeed. And it’s incumbent on the media owners to bring empathy and scrutiny to where those communications appear; ‘brand pyramids’ count for little if a brand's carefully crafted creative is thoughtlessly thrown onto the internet with little regard for context. There’s a reason the Louvre chose not to hang the Mona Lisa in the gents.
The core of what creativity can do has never been more valuable in a growing global marketplace that offers a near infinite choice of brands: all of whom want to stand out. I believe that creative-led agencies that put their clients’ business challenges first will prosper, by doubling down on what we do best – understanding our clients’ commercial context, the customers and the context our communications appear in order to engage meaningfully.
Brand safety issues are symptomatic of a network model that has put its own revenue growth ahead of its clients' best interests. It’s incumbent upon media owners, particularly the digital platforms, to improve the media buying process and give advertisers greater control of where their ads appear. It’s also incumbent on the media buyers to make sure they are using the platforms properly, with a greater duty of care and a ruthless focus on the consumer experience. Get this right, and the existence of a brand safety officer will become the exception rather than the norm.
Fergus Hay is partner and chief executive of Leagas Delaney