In recent months we have seen too many articles citing instances of brand advertisers using ad networks and finding their ads running next to inappropriate content, tarnishing their image. Advertisers need to ensure that their ads are running alongside content that is in keeping with and will bolster their own brand. Agencies need to make sure there are controls in place and that when buying through a network they won't end up fielding calls from an angry client who came across their ad on some questionable or inappropriate site.
Because of this, the industry has placed importance on advertising networks providing full site transparency to help solve this problem (and rightly so). But is this really the answer?
The reasoning behind requiring advertising networks to provide a complete site list is so that the advertiser and/or agency can review the list and eliminate any sites that they feel may contain inappropriate content. To begin with, some networks contain thousands of sites. In order to include this number of sites these networks have a large number of small sites which typically do not have their own sales force, making it easy to reveal an entire site list (as explained below). To be able to distinguish which of these sites are appropriate and which are not will be extremely time consuming. These small sites decide what content to publish, and at anytime can change their tone or direction, with you, as the advertiser, having little recourse. So, if you are working with a network that consists of thousands of small sites, there is no doubt you will have to monitor your buy very closely because networks that contain so many sites do not have teams in place to go through and examine each page of each site on a daily basis to guarantee their appropriateness.
In understanding this, the value of having access to a network's complete site list is greatly diminished. But now how can you protect your brand? Any reputable network will allow language in the contract to ensure the quality of the sites on which your ads appear. In addition to the standard clauses excluding adult or hate oriented content, be sure to include clauses stating that your ads will only appear on comScore Media Metrix top 500 internet properties, and/or that your ads will not appear on sites that contain social networking or user generated content (comment: advertisers should purchase social networking and user generated inventory when appropriate, but be aware that many networks are simply running RON ads across MySpace, which is what you are trying to protect against). Additionally, make sure that you have a no spyware and no re-brokering clause in your agreement, oftentimes one network will purchase impressions from another in order to fulfill buys they have oversold. In this situation the network is just focused on getting the media buy and doesn't care about your performance or the quality of the placement. With all this being said, if you have a good working relationship and have not experienced inappropriate placements with your current network partner, you may not need to request such language.
I suppose this all begs the question, if a network can accept these clauses why do some networks not publish their site lists? Simple, the networks' contracts with some of their publishers prohibit the public disclosure of the site names. This may seem odd but is easily explainable. Unlike the small sites, the larger sites are well-established, professionally published media outlets that have their own sales teams dedicated to selling the ad space and impressions on the site. These sites will sell a variety of ad formats to reputable, trusted ad network partners. The benefit the publishers garner from such a relationship is a guaranteed reoccurring revenue stream that helps even out the ebbs and flows of slow seasons, not to mention access to a wide breadth of advertisers. In order to acquire these high quality impressions the networks typically sign long-term contracts and are prohibited from disclosing the site names. This is done on the part of the publishers to avoid competing against themselves for the advertisers' business. It is for this reason that some premium networks cannot offer a complete site list, but do offer sample site lists so you know that your ads will appear on premium properties and in good company.
Lastly, when choosing an ad network, be sure you are working with a reputable one. Ask for case studies and/or testimonials along with a sample client list. Do your research to make sure you are not dealing with one of the more recent entrants with no track record. If the network pushes back on the contract requests as recommended above, this is a sure sign that you are dealing with a less-than-reputable network that cannot guarantee the quality of the content. If that is the case, move on and choose a network that will.
As you can see, there are more effective ways of protecting your brand than to simply require full site discloser from your ad network. Don't let the fact that a network is contractually restricted from providing you with a full site list deter you from including them in your buy, you just might be missing out on the best performers.
Michael Cassidy founded Intercept Interactive in 2001 and serves as the company's president and chief executive officer. Shortly after founding Intercept, Cassidy launched Undertone Networks, a premium online advertising network. Read full bio.