How to maneuver the programmatic minefield

"Nothing to see here" has for years been the industry's response to advertisers asking about the safety of their brands online. Meanwhile out of sight, increasingly complicated technologies and processes have been developed to cope with online advertising's biggest secret. Many advertisers have now woken up to the reality that advertising online is an inherently risky business, though this epiphany happily coincides with the arrival of a range of tools that help them sleep more easily at night.

Pre-bid brand safety on display advertising impressions in ad exchanges is now possible as RTB can identify inappropriate content and avoid bidding for it, and many companies have developed complementary robust techniques and processes that keep their customers safe. But wait -- just as we start to celebrate our ability to manage inappropriate content on web sites, along comes social media to spoil the party.

It is disappointing that some of the most popular destinations on the web have done so little to protect advertisers' brands, although given the vast amounts of user-generated content uploaded every minute, the ongoing struggle to control it is unsurprising. Recently though, after M&S, Nationwide, and Sky pulled their ads after appearing next to offensive content on Facebook, the social media giant took steps to protect advertisers by publishing its commitment to tackle hate speech on the site with a five-point safety program. More recently, Nissan, Sherwin-Williams, and others were found appearing in pre-roll ads before a beheading video on ForbezDVD.com, which coincided nicely with Tube Mogul and Tremor both announcing enhanced brand protection in their video networks.

So what is the current state of affairs? The IAB continues to work hard on behalf of the industry to create a set of brand safety rules to reassure nervous advertisers. The U.S. IAB announced its Quality Assurance Guidelines 2.0 (QAG) program earlier this year. Many companies have already self-certified activities, but no company has yet been independently validated. Meanwhile, in the U.K., the ISBA, the IPA, and the IAB seem close to sorting out differences, and the latest version of the Digital Standards Trading Group (DTSG) brand safety guidelines looks set to appear soon.

Fundamentally all inventory supply providers -- especially the ad exchanges and SSPs -- need to play a much bigger part in ensuring the quality of the impressions they are selling is good enough, at least at a basic level. It should be possible for these companies to vet suppliers and refuse to pay for bad inventory -- after all, if I bought a bag of cherries from the supermarket and found half of them were rotten, I'd want my money back.

Currently it's left up to agencies to try to protect their clients by (mainly) passing the responsibility to third parties such as independent trading desks or the ad networks, which have been the main revenue source for brand safety companies like Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify. There are some signs that exchanges are beginning to clean up their act, although there will always be a place for independent brand protection companies. Many are now branching out to offer other inventory quality indicators such as viewability (another advertiser blind spot), suspicious activity such as non-human traffic, page clutter, and even "professionalism."

All of this is encouraging news for advertisers and should help maintain an upward trajectory for online ad revenue. It also provides an astonishing amount of data about inventory to integrated DSP partners who can use it to optimize campaigns and improve campaign performance.

It's important that brands feel secure about spending money online and understand that the huge benefits brought by online advertising massively outweigh the vanishingly small risk of damaging their brand. That's not to say that bad things will never happen -- the same is true of offline media -- but agencies that adopt a robust, proactive brand protection strategy and use the latest technology intelligently can feel confident that risk is minimized and its clients' brands really are safe online.

Adrian Lacey is the U.K. MD at Crimtan.

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