Google shouldn't let a good crisis go to waste

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The company needs to give brands the visibility and transparency they deserve, writes the founder of The&Partnership.

As the world rebuilt itself after the Second World War, Winston Churchill apparently said, "Never let a good crisis go to waste." His words were echoed decades later by President Obama's chief of staff in the wake of the financial meltdown. While the recent advertiser exodus from YouTube is far less cataclysmic, it deserves to be recognized by Google as a crisis, and rather than wasted, treated as an opportunity to create a cleaner, safer environment for our brands to thrive in online.

There is no evidence thus far that Google is ready to seize this opportunity. Though only now reaching crisis point, the issue has been long-standing: Advertisers finding their brands presented in the context of unacceptable, often disturbing, online content, with the attendant risk that their advertising indirectly funds individuals and organizations they want no association with. Yet Google's response has been tokenistic. It's no small wonder we agencies, and our clients, are walking away.

There are two things Google must do—immediately—to rebuild advertiser confidence. 

Firstly, it must start viewing brand safety from the other end of the telescope. Instead of allowing huge volumes of content to become ad-enabled every minute, then endeavoring to convince advertisers the dangerous and offensive will be weeded out, it should only present advertisers with environments that are pre-vetted and 100 percent safe.

Secondly, as Keith Weed of Unilever recently said, Google has to "stop grading its own homework" and fully open its walled gardens to independent, specialist ad verification software, to give brands the visibility and transparency they deserve. This can have a profound impact on the reduction of ad fraud, as a survey we conducted recently served to demonstrate.

As GroupM's youngest media agency, our shop, m/SIX, was born in the age of addressable. It didn't start life buying TV ads and billboards, but exploring the then little-understood worlds of online, social and programmatic for clients that were primarily digitally driven. Investing as much time as we did, led us to recognize how potentially game-changing, but also how dangerous, these worlds could be.

In order to properly investigate the issues surrounding brand safety online, last year we partnered with fraud detection specialists Adloox to conduct an in-depth study of the real scale and cost of the phenomenon globally, but also specifically in the US. We analyzed hundreds of billions of bid requests over a period of 12 months and uncovered a malaise that ran much deeper than industry bodies had previously suggested. The ANA had put the cost to international advertisers at $7.2bn in 2016, but our study found ad fraud costing US advertisers alone as much as $7.5 billion, or 23 percent of the total $32 billion spent on digital video and display advertising. The numbers are a stark reminder of how much further and faster we need to move to create a healthy ecosystem for our brands.

The study also illustrated a way forward, demonstrating that effective use of independent, pre-bid ad verification software can reduce that 23 percent figure to just 1 or 2 percent. It won't lead to a complete eradication of the near quarter of spend that US brands may be wasting on fraudulent (often unsafe) advertising placements, but close.

Such software depends on the cooperation of digital media owners however; the crux of the issue that, over the past week, has led the world's largest advertisers to part company with Google—at an estimated cost to that business of up to $1 billion annually. The largest media owners in the digital economy—and most critically YouTube—still refuse to open up their walled gardens to our independent software.

We have been advising our clients against the use of YouTube since before the beginning 2017. Recently, I sat on a panel at the Guardian's "Changing Media Summit" in London, and called for brands and agencies to move from debate to action on ad fraud, saying that if Google and YouTube did not completely clean up the advertising environment they offer to brands, and allow agencies to independently verify them, it would be incumbent on us to withdraw spend from those channels. Since then, Google has neither said nor done anything significant enough for us to change our advice. 

Sooner or later Google has to recognize that this is a crisis and it should not, cannot, let it go to waste.

Johnny Hornby is the founder of The&Partnership.