I sold my digital agency about a year ago, so I’ve been able to view the industry with a degree of outside perspective. I’ve been saddened by recent revelations about ads running in unsavory content.
In fact, I’m dismayed because it’s not like this is new.
Some of you will remember back to 2008 when a number of advertisers running on blind ad networks (a precursor to many programmatic networks) had ads appear next to videos of street violence. The lessons of ad misplacement have obviously been forgotten.
The lack of leadership from the industry bodies and shoulder shrugging from the wider industry has not helped. This is an avoidable problem as I will outline below.
I believe this is the unintended consequence of a toxic mix of blind faith in technology, digital team "separateness" and a lack of management oversight of digital campaigns. In fact, I think years of driving down agency fees, the well-reported transparency issues that dog the industry, viewability and ad fraud are all part of the same problem.
There is no 100 percent reliable way of filtering all potential inventory for unsavory content
The problem now is much as it was then. Back in 2008, the filtering process was mainly manual. Now the process is automated but still imperfect. I’d argue that if a company like YouTube (one of the most sophisticated companies on the planet) is unable to filter all bad content then we must acknowledge the problem and work around it.
In the same way hackers circumvent technology defences, dodgy content will leak through the most sophisticated systems.
The race toward programmatic has become an irresistible force among agencies and advertisers. No CMO dare say they’re not using programmatic for fear of ridicule. The rewards are high but the risks are often ignored.
Many digital teams (both advertiser and agency side) work in isolation of the wider business and are rarely subject to proper scrutiny from senior management. Keep delivering the traffic and everything’s OK.
Agencies struggle to make digital media work financially (hence the drive towards programmatic as it is more cost efficient to manage) meaning work gets pushed toward more junior members of the team who don’t have the experience to critically evaluate what they’re doing. For these teams it is often a struggle just to get campaigns live—the extra work involved in compliance is a step too far.
We have a system that prices everything but cannot evaluate the damage caused by getting it wrong
At their core, the technologies that make up programmatic establish a price between sellers and buyers of ad inventory. However, the assumption is that all inventory will have some worth even if the price is vanishingly small.
That’s obviously not the case. Some inventory carries risk that is not priced into the model. There is a negative price that needs to be accounted for.
In the same way that insurers price risk, the same principle should be applied to ad inventory.
So, for example, there are some advertisers who don’t care where their ads appear. They want sales and the impact of environment matters little. Risk here is priced close to zero.
Some advertisers would price the risk a little higher—some but not all content should be avoided. Fair enough, that is their choice but the risk here is that the desire to increase sales by pushing boundaries could lead to ad misplacement.
The final category covers most brands. Brands for whom the price of getting it wrong is incredibly high. There are no circumstances under which the brand should be seen next to unsavory content. The cost of getting it wrong exceeds any benefit.
If companies cannot offer a 100 percent guarantee, then risk needs to be managed. My view is that until one can be 100 percent certain many brands simply cannot participate in the market. The following plan may also be helpful.
Three point risk assessment plan for CMOs
- Evaluate the risk of an ad misplacement and put a price on it (you may want to include your own job in this calculation). Does the price outweigh the benefit? If the risk of ads appearing is high, then consider stopping activity until you can mitigate the risk.
- Evaluate your current protection plans. View JICWEBS as the first line of defence but not the only line of defence. Reducing or minimising ad misplacement is not the same as eliminating it. If this risk is not being managed then stop activity until it is.
- Take a whitelist approach. Blacklists place an almost impossible burden on the advertiser to specify content to avoid in advance. Advertisers with low risk tolerance should take control by opting in content supply based on a whitelist of approved/guaranteed inventory suppliers only.
I’m not suggesting that every advertiser should stop their activity but a proper risk assessment would mean a thorough weighing up of the risks and rewards. I suspect many advertisers are only now thinking of the risks inherent in what they are buying and while a whitelist approach does limit many of the targeting benefits of programmatic technology for many brands it may be a worthwhile trade off.
I’m surprised that the TV, radio, print and OOH industries haven’t been quicker to point out the inherent safety in their own networks—ad misplacement there carries fewer risks. And, while we’re at it, it may be worth applying the risk evaluation to your agency remuneration too.
Squeezing fees may not look such good value once you price in the consequences of what can go wrong.
—Nick Suckley is an ex-co-founder of Agenda21 and an advisor at Accelerator Academy.