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'Brand safety goes beyond advertising': is the industry taking it seriously?

Leaders from brands, agencies and publishers pushed the brand-safety debate forward at a Campaign-GumGum hosted breakfast...

"Ensure a good customer experience on an individual level. Protect reputation of the bank on a macro level. Get fair return for our investment. These are our three broad objectives – backed by strategies – to ensure we’re delivering the safest experience we can in a world that’s less safe in digital," said Lou Paskalis, senior vice president, enterprise executive at Bank of America.

The brand safety issue is a major industry concern. The topic underpinned a lively discussion during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – with Computer Vision company GumGum and Campaign hosting. Marketers, agencies and publishers discussed how the industry can come together to tackle advertising’s growing threat.

‘Brand safety’ is different for everyone
There’s no one-size-fits all description of brand safety according to the varied responses from speakers – so is there a one-size-fits solution?

James Londal, chief data officer at Hearts & Science believes brand safety stems from a larger quality problem: "We want our adverts to appear in the best place. We need to have greater control over where ads appear, regardless of the platform. We need to have a certain standard of quality on the content. Platforms need to ensure the quality level is maintained." 

But appropriateness is a key word that Merkle’s SVP agency of  solutions, Tom Byrne, used: "There are some things that aren’t appropriate in any situation – that shouldn’t be there. What distinguishes brand safety from performance advertising is about relevance within circumstance. It’s about people’s individual feelings and how they feel, which makes it harder to quantify."

Rafe Blandford, mobile strategy director at DigitasLBI, added:  "It’s about protecting brand equity. And it’s about protecting relationship with your customer. Brand safety goes beyond advertising."

Is brand safety taken seriously?
Brand safety has been a hot talking point in the last two years with global CMOs such as Marc Pritchard and Keith Weed championing a better, more transparent, safer digital ecosystem – but not all brands are focussing on it. Laricea Roman-Halliday, head of digital at The Specialist Works said: "There are some clients who are very concerned about brand safety but some who are ready to compromise to get more reach and volume."

"We’re trying to be transparent and educate. But the lack of minimum standard makes it incredibly hard. We should be on a mission to push those standards. And we should refuse to work with publishers who refuse to work to those minimum standards."

Ben Phillips, global head of mobile at MediaCom, added that if advertisers have got a more traditional reach-and-frequency mentality, brand safety isn’t such a priority:  "We’ve had a rough year with ad  fraud, blocking and bots – we’re all looking for standards that we can all work to."

But some marketers – including Paskalis – are hugely invested in brand safety. Paskalis works closely with publishers and vendors, measuring and rating their performance and taking investment back from the poorest performers. Paskalis explained: "It is a weapon for me to go back to publishers and say, if you want my business – we’re going to deduct based on performance metrics."

Who makes brand’s safer: robots or humans?
Humans, according to Paskalis. It’s up to us: "I have no faith in the machines. Last week, I made one of my senior directors our chief brand safety officer. Now she has a mandate to talk internally, to talk externally and to talk to the press. So much of this happened because clients outsourced too much – because it’s complicated, it’s nuanced and there’s a lack of resource. For us, it’s a broad mandate and incredibly important for the future of the bank."

Stephen Maher, CEO at MBA applauded Paskalis and thinks it may help marketers link transparency with ROI: "It’s incredible you have a chief brand safety officer. It’s a coming together of the transparency and ROI. I need to know there’s that brand safety and transparency – but I also need to know I’m getting a return on investment."

Publishers are also drawing on human expertise to create safer environments, according to BBC Advertising’s director of programmatic ad sales, Suzy Feiglstok: "We have human interaction to decide if it’s a piece of content that we would feel comfortable with. The editor decides if the content is brand safe".

Paskalis likes this personalised approach but questions if humans alone will be able to conquer brand safety: "That your editors check a box: is this content brand safe? I love that you’re doing it – I just don’t know how to sell it at board-level. But I love the idea of an editor thinking: ‘I think it’s brand safe’".

But are machines being overlooked? Blandford believes that machines are only as intelligent as the humans that programme them, and we shouldn’t write off AI’s ability to help tackle these issues: "I want to defend the machine. It does allow us to have scale. And we can reach a stage where a brand programmes in a set of attributes – ‘this is my brand-safety profile’ – and the machine makes decisions for you. We’re not there yet but how do we build AI that is able to span a variety of content, that becomes better than humans? It’s just a matter of time. We’re two or three years out."

But bringing the power of humans together with the machines to tackle the issue is essential.  Ed Preedy, GumGum’s managing director of Europe said: "You do need to have constant vigilance and updating by humans because things change. And what’s acceptable for brands to appear alongside one day could change quickly – with a piece of news, for instance. You need the human element.

"But for advertisers to take advantage of the digital opportunity, AI provides an essential role. The web is becoming more and more visual – more videos and images online. Having technology that understands and reads this content, in its entirety, is vital."

Maher agreed that in the future merging AI with human interaction is the winning combination: "You also need to involve the creative side well. Better ads in better context. There’s huge opportunity in combining AI with other parts of the ecosystem, not just media buying. It leads to much better advertising."

How you can make digital marketing safer – in just one sentence: 

"Double down on identity" Lou Paskalis, senior vice president, enterprise media executive, Bank of America

"Don’t focus only on reach. A video next to ISIS is not going to generate sales" James Londal, chief data officer, Hearts & Science

"Not every single brand is using a verification or brand safety tool – it’s huge opportunity for brands or advertisers" Jason Cooper, general manager of mobile, Integral Ad Science

"Ruthless transparency at every part – bring it to what you’re buying and who you’re buying it from" Matt Gillis, VP, global supply sales, Oath

"Brand safety means different things for different people. As a publisher, we need to have an arsenal of tools to cater for those." Suzy Feiglstok, director, programmatic ad sales, BBC Advertising

"Ask partners and vendors the right questions and don’t just take their word for it. Test performance and discuss results" Ken Weiner, CTO, GumGum

"The industry is still looking at an advertiser perspective. But marketing is shifting to consumer in. Start with the consumer and their relationship to the brand." Tom Byrne, SVP of agency services, Merkle

"Everyone needs to take responsibility on brand safety" Rafe Blandford, mobile strategy director, DigitasLBI

"Educate yourself, test performance and take control" Ed Preedy, managing director, Europe, GumGum

"Provide use cases where we can prove brand safety is working – to the benefit of the client and consumer" Stephen Maher, CEO, MBA