Advertisers should embrace news, not shy away because of brand safety 'paranoia'

Misguided fears over brand safety have prompted some advertisers to shy away from news publishers, Nick Hewat warns.

It's now one year since The Times revealed shocking evidence of brand safety fails through a series of important investigations into YouTube and other platforms, shocking all of us in the advertising sector.

It’s also 12 months since P&G’s Marc Pritchard raised legitimate concerns about transparency and fraud in the digital ecosystem.  

It’s fair to say the past twelve months have been something of a journey for those who had been surfing a wave of tech-enabled advertising.  

Brands who had got used to their ads going out across thousands of sites started to scrutinise where their ads were running - and some of the results made for uncomfortable reading.

Players across the Lumascape had some explaining to do, and quality publishers like The Guardian felt vindicated that our proposition of quality, trust, attention and engagement was being listened to with renewed vigour.

Marketers are nothing if not relentlessly adaptable, and following those wake up calls, much is changing for the better.

The best brands and CMOs are much more curious about where their spend is ending up, and ask both media owners and agencies all the right questions about who they’re reaching, where, and against what quality of content.

Context is making an overdue comeback as a buying strategy (just in time for GDPR, some say).

Advertiser paranoia

Now though, ?the industry faces a different challenge - a creeping conservatism that might undermine British advertising’s reputation for courage and conviction, at just the time when quality environments are winning the argument on trust.

Blocking keywords is suddenly big business in digital advertising.  

We get that; The Guardian routinely strips out advertising from live blogs around terrorism, for example.

However, some advertisers now risk becoming so paranoid about any controversial or political content that they could end up distorting both ad effectiveness and costs, and, for some publications, decisions on what content to produce.  

One advertiser I’m aware of now routinely blocks phrases like "Theresa May" or "parliament" by its online keyword targeting policy.  One agency group has blocks on over 2,000 words.

The technology used by ad verification partners can be basic. For instance if an advertiser is blocking IS (Islamic state), and we had an article with the word 'is' in the URL, it would be blocked automatically.

Machines have yet to learn linguistic nuance as well. If a celebrity swears in an interview, The Guardian believes that its audience is mature enough to read the quote in full - but some brands will have blanket blocks on the word, so will miss the opportunity to connect with readers in a valuable context.

There are two big ironies in this blunt instrument approach to keyword blocking.

The first is that these controversial subjects are of huge interest to readers.

British and American politics, foreign news and our hard-hitting live blogs are often our most-viewed stories, and the ones with the best attention times from our audience.

They command their full attention and human attention is becoming so scarce that there should be a premium attached to content that commands it.

The second irony is that, in a different context, the same brands being overly cautious online are anything but when it comes to our print offering.  Advertisers want to be in the front half of our newspapers, among the "hard news" stories of the day whenever possible (and are also eager to buy ad slots in news programmes on TV, or coming out of a news report on radio). It’s inconsistent, at best.

The Guardian’s commitment to serious, public interest journalism means we know our readers - and many brands - expect nothing less than fast, factual reporting of politics, foreign affairs and the biggest economic and social issues.  

This type of news and opinion is not only necessary - it’s popular. It’s likely that brands who take a blunt instrument approach to keyword blocking will be missing out on prime real estate, and big audiences who are engrossed in high-quality Guardian journalism.

For journalism that relies solely on advertising, this same over-cautious approach could undermine the reason for its very existence -  to hold power to account and tell stories which the public want to hear.

If a publisher doesn’t have a diverse revenue strategy or established commitments to journalistic freedom, some could find themselves forced to channel resources away from hard news, and turn themselves into that dreaded term, "content providers", creating only softer lifestyle content that is advertiser friendly.

It also means that advertisers could be shooting themselves in the foot in another way. Not only are they missing some of the most raptured audiences, but they could actually be increasing their own costs.

By only allowing their ads alongside certain types of content they are creating concentrated demand, which will see market forces take hold and result in an increase in pricing.

That will leave other advertisers to scoop up prime real estate for a fraction of the cost, and for no discernable benefit if the choice has already been made to advertise on a trusted platform.

Losing relevance

What needs to be done? It’s understandable that, in the stampede away from dangerous and reputationally damaging content, advertisers have thought on their feet. But British advertising has always been at its best when at its boldest and most visionary.

The industry has never shied away from a point of view on the big political and social issues of the day when it comes to hard news in print, or hard-hitting current affairs on television.  

It should get comfortable with being part of (and seen in) those same conversations in trusted digital environments, too.

Brand safety is out of the box - it’s rightly a significant issue for the industry, and it’s not going away any time soon.

Just how the industry is currently tackling it leaves much to be desired - and there’s a real risk that, in keeping their brands as far away from illegal and abusive content as possible, our biggest and best advertisers become overly timorous, or lack relevance or authenticity at a time when the public appetite for engagement real news has never been higher.

I’ve talked to a number of big clients about this issue, and I want to hear more about how we can help build trust in brands - but without acquiescing to a world of anodyne rejection of anything with a whiff of hard news.

Nick Hewat is commercial director of Guardian News & Media

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