Why The Media Giants Are Too Big to Ever Be Fully Brand Safe

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The mood is optimistic as the digital advertising industry prepares to fix its problematic supply chain. Despite a string of high-profile brand safety issues that led three-quarters (74%) of brands to suspend investment in ad networks, marketers are making it a priority to address the challenges faced by the programmatic ecosystem, according to a survey by the World Federation of Advertisers.

But is it really possible to clean up the programmatic ecosystem to a point where brand safety can be guaranteed, or might it be that the giant media platforms who currently receive the majority of programmatic spend are simply too large to ever be fully brand safe?

Volume and nature of content impedes brand safety

Each brand has its own definition of safety, and its own rules over where it wants ads to appear. While there are content categories most brands will want to avoid, there are also plenty of grey areas. Content may not appear offensive but could easily be damaging if it doesn’t align with a brand’s positioning. For instance, a confectionary brand would not want their ads appearing next to an article about childhood obesity, whereas a competitor that specialises in healthier, low sugar treats might actively seek that placement.

The sheer volume of content on giant media platforms makes it impossible to understand context and to guarantee relevant and brand safe placements. This year, multiple brand safety breaches illustrated the difficulty larger media platforms face preventing brand ads appearing alongside even blatantly illegal or inflammatory content, never mind less obviously damaging topics. Much of the content on larger platforms, particularly social networks, is user generated and therefore difficult to regulate, especially as it is generated at an incredible speed.

Murky supply chains limit trust and transparency

Programmatic supply chains are often complex, with multiple middlemen between the brand and the publisher, making it difficult for brands to see where they are spending budgets and where ads are appearing. They also have little visibility into the other ads served on the page alongside their own. Association with a controversial or inappropriate brand or product through adjacent ad placements can be just as damaging to a brand as being linked with dubious content.

Brands are now demanding greater transparency throughout the programmatic supply chain, with 34% of CMOs wanting greater clarity from agencies and suppliers over where ads appear, and 45% believing there should be increased focus on third-party reporting around ad placement quality.

Media buying agencies often come under fire when brand safety issues arise as two-thirds (67%) of brand marketers worldwide place the onus on them to ensure proper ad placement. But in truth agencies have little more visibility into the programmatic supply chain than the clients they represent.

Brands are now demanding greater transparency throughout the programmatic supply chain, with 34% of CMOs wanting greater clarity from agencies and suppliers over where ads appear, and 45% believing there should be increased focus on third-party reporting around ad placement quality. While there has been some progress by the larger media platforms on implementing third-party verification and measurement, this is still very limited and unlikely to provide brands with the visibility they demand.

Trust and transparency in the media supply chain is essential to give buyers the confidence to continue investing, but this will be hard to achieve through the complex ecosystem in which the giant media platforms operate. These platforms are simply too far removed from the brand messaging to ensure safe and contextually relevant ad placements.

Technology can’t entirely replace the human touch

Advances in programmatic have brought scale and efficiency to digital advertising, but as technology evolves it still requires an element of human intervention. Left to its own devices, programmatic will ensure an ad is delivered to the right user, but won’t consider whether it is reaching that user in a safe and appropriate environment, unless it has further human input. Some brands caught up in the issues exposed by The Times earlier this year didn’t fully understand how programmatic worked and so couldn’t comprehend how the situation had arisen.

Just because programmatic technology is available, that doesn’t mean it should be fully relied upon to make the best decisions. The sheer scale of the major media platforms means programmatic algorithms are largely left to run without a great deal of human intervention, limiting the delivery of contextually relevant ad placements.

Prioritising quality over quantity

There’s no question the giant media platforms offer exceptional reach. But brands are beginning to understand quality is often more important than quantity, and reaching a smaller number of highly engaged users with contextually relevant messaging in a brand safe environment could be a more effective use of their marketing dollars.

Instead of relying on the larger media platforms, brands could consider smaller closed networks that work only with premium publishers and provide a more controlled environment. These types of networks stringently monitor both publisher inventory, to ensure brands aren’t advertising with poor quality or damaging content, and other advertisers, so marketers won’t find their ads adjacent to dubious products or brands. They can fully understand a brand’s unique definition of safety, and offer an enhanced level of brand care – placing ads in the most relevant and engaging environments.

Because closed networks have direct relationships with advertisers and publishers the digital supply chain becomes shorter and far more transparent. They can offer ad formats such as native that are inherently brand safe as they align contextually with the content of the page and are designed to improve rather than interrupt the user experience. Through closed networks brands can still enjoy the efficiencies of programmatic media buying, without the risks inherent in larger platforms.

The industry’s positive outlook on fixing brand safety issues in programmatic is to be commended and encouraged. But the volume and unregulated nature of content on giant media platforms, the lack of transparency in the programmatic supply chain, and the absence of human input into ad placement will all be stumbling blocks to 100% guaranteeing brand safety. Marketers need to prioritise quality over reach and look to smaller, more controlled networks if they truly want to address the issue of brand safety.


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