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Why ‘Return on Integrity’ is the new ROI in marketing

This is an exciting time to be in marketing; undoubtedly the most innovative, consumer-driven era the industry has ever witnessed. Consumer attention is fast becoming premium, marketing budgets are tight and creative resources are scarce; but quality will always be the primary differentiator. More CMOs are taking on business roles, as marketing is now central to their products and service offerings. With retrievable data to track every minute of a consumer’s behaviour and ad performance, marketing has never been more measurable.

But in these exciting times, there are signs of worry around trust and transparency in the supply chain of marketing. Media creates content to engage users and then delivers these users through ads to advertisers and makes money. That has been the business model since forever. But the key goods involved in the value chain - content and users - are under the scanner. Globally, almost every fourth app install is not real. That's almost 50 billion fraud installs, out of all the app installs that happen in a year. This is a tremendous waste of precious media money. Ad Viewability gives reassurance to the advertiser that their ads are being delivered in-view to the end consumer. That we even have a viewability metric in digital implies there are billions of ads that aren’t actually ever seen.

In addition to fraud, brand safety is becoming a concern. With UGC content going out of control and most news being bad news in these unfortunate times, it is a constant worry as to where a brand’s ad might end up. Isn't this a sign of the times that "Brand Trust" has shape-shifted to "Brand Safety", stealthily, right under our noses? A pursuit denigrated into a worry? Of course it is! We know it, as does Marc. But probably think it's perhaps more long term than our quarterly targets. Long term, that wicked euphemism for Sweeping under the carpet. Well, time to dust the carpets now. A quick word of advice to these reputed data-driven publishers looking to grow their base of brand and agency clients, credibility isn’t just the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense. Now that’s real news.

The Drum's Person of the Decade, Marc Pritchard of P&G, has been suggesting a brand new media supply chain for a while now. His is a media where trust and transparency is solved at its roots and the problem doesn't exist in his supply chain. He, like most of us, understands now that trust can never be solved once broken, like the proverbial fracture in a glass. He had been frantically falling back and building rock-solid defenses around his brand values and his marketing spends. Why is all this such a high priority for someone who has a million other inward-looking brand agendas to pursue?

The right question is, why is this not a high priority for so many others among us? Why are we still riled up in every meeting about CPAs and LTVs and mired in chasing mirage of the next big Everything? I think it's because Marc sees ahead of us. I think Marc is Person of the Decade for a reason.

Onus on Brands

Brands are finally realizing they’ll never be 100% safe on UGC platforms. And using people or programs to make it happen is a perpetual tail-chase. So what are we really getting here when we say we got a CPI of a dollar? Did we get someone's, some human's, trust in our brand for a dollar? Do we really think trust is so cheap?.

Content consumption is at an all-time high, and this has substantial implications for both the millennial population and brands coveting their attention. Today, the content has become ubiquitous; everybody has some play or the other in creating, curating or producing content. One of the largest online video libraries has about 24,000 minutes of new videos uploaded each minute – a testimony to this content avalanche. While this does present a magnanimous opportunity, there are underlying challenges. Cynicism is more widespread than it ever has been and cutting through the clutter has never been harder. Credibility has a large part to play in exacerbating this challenge.

The erstwhile filters that were in place through controlled media distribution no longer exist and with the boost in mass content production opinions have diluted real news. The ‘positioning’ of the truth is now a part of Internet lingo and has created a range of terms that indicate influence that enable emotional appeal to take precedence over facts. Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts.

Content Creators who have a direct responsibility towards their long term loyal users, and not those who hide behind shady terms of aggregating platforms, are the ones who can deliver this trust. And sometimes it is not pricey either, since a lot of them, at least the financially fortunate or visionary among them, have invested in data management and audience targeting platforms. Metrics drive business impact and they cannot be taken lightly. Trust in measurement is low and partner networks must work harder to earn it back. This needs them to be nimble in empowering brands and marketing teams with powerful verified insights endorsed by third-party tools. Digital platforms and storytelling capabilities of reputed media houses like The New York Times, The Economist, The Times of India (of Times Internet, armed with Spotlight Studio and Colombia AdTech capabilities), have been trying hard to make brands understand this.

How Times Internet's Colombia does it

Times Internet’s Colombia platform is deployed across more than 100 properties, reaching out to half a billion users monthly. It is India’s only publisher built ad tech platform and hence has the unique advantage of being on the same side of the table as content. Since it is part of the Times Internet brand umbrella and shares space with iconic brands like Times of India (.com), Economic Times (.com) etc, it is forced to the same standards of trust as these others.

To address viewability, Colombia guarantees that a viewer actually views an advert on an active website/webpage, within a frame. It ensures the advertisers do not fall victim to ad stacking frauds or ad masking techniques. Brands are not charged for ads that are not viewed. If an advert is placed at the bottom of a web page and a viewer doesn’t scroll down far enough to see it, then the impression would not be deemed as viewable - simple! Hence 100% viewability is the only definition of viewability in Colombia from a brand’s standpoint.

Working with premium publishers with solid editorial credentials, Colombia also nips brand safety issues related to fake news, UGC, offensive content etc. in the bud. A problem that never gets created, doesn’t have to be solved for. Times of India has been the biggest mainstream media voice against Fake News in India, with its immensely popular fake news initiative on social media. However, there is still bad or harsh news, that cannot be avoided from being reported. For that there Colombia has an elaborate AI-based content filtering mechanism at work, similar in purpose yet unique in approach from that of content aggregation companies.

The details of the same are private to the company, but the fact that there has been no brand safety faux pas reported in media in the 10 years of its history (yes - ZERO), compared to the barrage of gaffes we hear about at other aggregator and search/social platforms, speaks volumes. For this, Colombia works at five different levels of brand safety of content across the network.

  1. Graphical representation, usually more explicit with a high degree of offensiveness; possibly of illegal content types

  2. Graphical content, somewhat offensive but not entirely illegal; the high probability that this is offensive for leading advertisers

  3. Moderately acceptable content, typically for the brands, but caution needs to be given to its subjective nature

  4. Generally acceptable content; does not typically contain anything offensive in nature and/or theme

  5. No risk of any offensive content at all but it limits scale

It manages these risks by restricting content that encourages offensive words that can sound like bullying or harassment of any kind. Content that encourages gambling with real money or misleading users is strictly forbidden. It also keeps a check on content that promotes direct violence or criminality. It encourages comments but it’s moderation policies discourages and weeds out hate speech and trolling entirely.

Colombia also takes ad fraud seriously. Working with premium publishers and owned/curated content gives it a natural advantage and once again there have never been any issues of fraud clicks that are routine with other advertising platforms; it has almost become industry norm to refund the cost of these fraud clicks to brands rather than compensate them for the damage done to the brand.

Colombia has its own ad-server, but can also work behind the scenes on Google’s DFP to provide it’s AI to the ad-serving. All ads served across the TIL network are available for third party verification of delivered demographics in both display and video campaigns. Standard Industry tools like Nielsen and Moat are supported out of the box.

A Movement

When tech platforms and Content are on the same side of the table, brands are more safe. Colombia and TIL are now actively working with other publishers in India to encourage them to adopt this philosophy and approach and initial signs are very promising.

Vivek Pandey is digital marketer and VP of revenue strategy at Times Internet.

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