When Being Safe Became Cool Again

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The word ‘safe’ has different connotations depending on how, where and when it’s used. On one hand, being ‘safe’ is square, predictable, cautious and unadventurous. But, in another context it’s secure, stable and being in a trusted environment.  As a parent I definitely want all the security of the latter for my kids, but I also don’t want them going through life scared of their own shadow. My take is that in parenting you need to find the balance of both of these definitions of ‘safe’, and the same is true of my day job as well.

Don’t worry, you haven’t stumbled upon some mommy blog erroneously uploaded to AW360 and I’m certainly not one to judge your parenting skills, I do that enough of myself. I just wanted to draw a relatable parallel of how important and critical safety is in my day job in advertising and media to my 24/7 one of being a Mom.

Having been in the industry for longer than I care to admit, I’ve witnessed in the last decade some particularly interesting trends in the explosion of digital. With huge online audiences and the introduction of programmatic advertising, unfathomably large numbers of ‘eyeballs’ became available via social media and all manner of digital platforms, leading marketers’ eyes (and budgets) in the direction of the shiny new toy. We entered a new world where campaigns could be executed in an instant, automated and transactional manner to reach audiences at huge scale. All seemed fine. But a vital ingredient was often overlooked – context, and where your ad landed in the landscape of all those millions of eyeballs.

This came to a head a couple of years ago as Marc Pritchard and others began to fight back against lack of transparency, and several exposés laid bare misdemeanours ranging from the scandal of mis-placed brand messages next to inappropriate content to the mis-use of user data by digital platforms. The horror of seeing established and trusted household brands next to jihadi videos, combined with fears over privacy, ad fraud and ad blocking led to digital media and platforms having to get their house in order and many advertisers coming back to ‘traditional’ media that they trusted.

Context, quite rightly, became important again and the words ‘brand safety’ shot up the list of marketers’ priorities. A recent WARC global media trends report that I contributed to found brand safety to still be one of the key concerns of marketers going into 2019, with over two thirds agreeing that context is more important than cost when planning media.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect there to be a wholesale shift of budgets from social media because some performance marketing campaigns simply need scale regardless of environment. But for trusted brands that need to reach highly defined – particularly upscale – audiences with a particular message, there is an obvious reason to turn towards premium publishers that can provide ‘brand safety’ along with quality content, data expertise and scale.

Representing a global, trusted news brand, this change of mindset is obviously validating for me because we are quite rightly seen as a safe harbour in what can often be choppy seas. Which is ironic because the accusation levelled at news media for a long time was that advertisers risked brand damage by having their message placed next to hard news.

Now, however, companies like CNN have robust technology and checks in place to ensure that clients’ ads don’t appear next to content that may negate their message. Additionally, at CNN we also invested heavily in adjacent destinations such as CNN Style, CNN Business, CNN Travel and Great Big Story; that deliver lifestyle content popular with a qualified, targetable audience that is also particularly coveted by these same advertisers.

There is also a strong case that a news environment is actually a natural home for some brands, with the context helping to generate better levels of engagement. Marissa Freeman, Chief Brand Officer for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, neatly articulates the rationale for advertising in a news environment in a recent interview with Beet.tv, saying: “If you’re talking about technology that’s going to change the world and do something great for business, for humans, for society, that’s newsworthy and that belongs in a news environment… Depending upon what your brand is, I would say it’s a really smart place to be for some advertisers.”

Like I always say to clients – particularly those I agree with – I couldn’t have said it better myself!  Brand safety is back on the agenda, and that’s a good thing for both advertisers and media owners. So, let us banish the negative connotations of the word ‘safe’ that it’s boring, square and unadventurous. And let’s focus on ensuring that advertising messages and the environment they are found in are truly aligned as part of a shared commitment to deliver an experience that our consumers expect of us.

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