Declaring War On ‘Brand Safety’ Misinformation

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We need to declare war on misinformation. And I’m not talking about bogus Covid-19 cures.

I’m talking about “Brand Safety” – and what seems to be an insidious, concerted effort among vendors to pull the wool over CMOs eyes.

As the chief revenue officer at Method Media Intelligence, my role is to have conversations with potential customers and sell them on our product. Understandably outreach during the COVID-19 crisis has been uniquely challenging. Ad executives are naturally distracted, a bit cautious – not to mention stuck at home.

During this time, we have focused on getting our house in order by focusing on product updates, producing informational one-sheeters, conducting research, and trying to figure out if Carole Baskin killed her husband. We fully realize that budgets and people are in flux, so we have been offering free tests of our tools and requesting only 30 minutes for a conversation.

It was in one of the 30-minute conversations, it all became troublingly clear.

The marketer in question worked with multiple outside vendors purporting to keep its brand-safe and or to make sure its ads reach actual people. In online advertising, there is a huge, seemingly-vibrant-yet-alarmingly-opaque sub-industry of various companies promising to keep brands out of trouble and avoid getting ripped off. They go by various labels – verification, brand auditing, fraud protection – but the offerings are mostly in the same safe neighborhood.

What was so troubling was that a senior decision-maker at this brand had little understanding of how some of their safety vendors worked.

As the conversation continued, things became even clearer. As we heard this executive detail how his anti-fraud procedures worked, his explanation sounded quite familiar.

That’s because we’d read it already.

A few weeks earlier, we became privy to an RFP response sent to a different agency that included a series of responses from several safety vendors. The language in one of the written responses was repeated almost word for word by our marketer friend.

Plus, this vendor had led this marketer to believe its product was capable of all sorts of specific brand protection mechanisms that in reality, it can’t deliver on. We know this as experts in the field who work in this sector intimately and from talking to those who can speak with authority regarding which brand safety firms can perform which function.

The problem is, every brand safety vendor likes to say it can do everything a brand needs. Real-time content analysis for brand safety? Check. Detect 100% of fraud in CTV/OTT? Contextual targeting in-app? Check.

In this case, the aforementioned RFP was full of outright lies. All the boxes were checked, so to speak, and it was no accident.

Rather, there is a deliberate misinformation campaign at work here – that is not unlike what we see in the political arena amidst the COVID crisis. Buyers either don’t know they are being misled, or they hear so much contradictory information that they don’t trust anyone.

We’re sorry to say this, but here’s generally how some of the misinformation is perpetuated: desperate salespeople.

Salespeople are under a lot of pressure (even more so now) to nail down a contract and tell potential clients what they want to hear. Sometimes, when asked about a particular capability, they’ll close the door and whisper, “sure we can do that” – whether true or not. Since buyers have convinced themselves they should only work with vendors who “check all the boxes,”  salespeople make sure they leave no boxes unchecked.

Of course, salespeople don’t want to say “No” to a client or suggest it is a bad idea to block a keyword because that might prevent them from getting the deal.

Unfortunately, as a result of all this mistrust, safety vendors are disliked by many groups and often for the wrong reason. Currently, safety vendors are being blamed by hurting news publishers. This too is misinformation. Marketers are the ones proactively requesting to block “COVID.” The technology will do what you tell it to.

This is the nuance of the problem. Before a CMO or an ad buyer ‘tells’ its brand safety tech vendor what to do, they need a better understanding of what these products can actually do.

Salespeople are not the enemy; they are not innocent, but they are not the enemy. It doesn’t help when ad agency execs or their CMO clients ask vendors basic binary questions like, “do you have this capability? You do? Great!” It would be a lot better for the ecosystem if said brands were able to probe vendors with informed questions about how their tech actually works. We may be a ways off from that reality.

In the meantime, I actually hope you are thinking:” This guy sells a brand safety product and is saying that everybody else is full of it. He’s got an agenda.” Because part of the combat of misinformation is knowing the source and checking. Everyone in this business has an agenda, and you should use this knowledge to your advantage when vetting any potential partner.

It’s true that CMOs generally don’t have the technical skills to be confident enough to call BS on a random safety vendor touting “proprietary algorithms”, but they should have folks on their team or the ability to bring in consultants who can provide counterintelligence to help in this war.

Brand leaders need to break their teams from the mentality of awarding contracts to whichever company that checks all of these “boxes” – and instead urge as much diligence as possible. The more we all become fact-checkers, the better chance we have to stamp out misinformation.

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