Brand safety playbook for marketers: Policy shifts, fake news, COVID-19 and more

The new GroupM report dives into how brand safety has been evolving in recent months.

Brand safety issues have never been simple for marketers, and now with technological, social and political shifts coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests against racial injustice, the opportunities and risks are more complex than ever.

GroupM decided to unpack the current state of brand safety practices to provide a guide for CMOs today. The new report dives into topics like connected TV, digital out-of-home, gaming, shifts in GDPR and CCPA, coronavirus and much more.  

Key insights in the evolution of brand safety:

  • Policy shifts such as GDPR and CCPA, among others, are seeing old measurement methodologies such as third-party cookies fall away and the industry has an opportunity to collectively create better standards.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has established a "new normal," "digital first" lifestyle for the majority of the global population. Consumption habits have changed (more news, gaming and streaming content). Aggressive keyword avoidance demonetizes online news, especially during COVID, as the audiences increase and at a time when the public needs reliable information the most. So, while protecting our brands is key, we have to strike a critical balance to support quality news sources.
  • Fake news and technologies that create deepfake videos are growing more sophisticated and threaten to further erode institutional trust.
  • Connected TV promises to command a larger share of budget in the coming years; however, measurement is fragmented across devices and publishers.
  • Digital out-of-home is set to grow more advanced and complex as programmatic buying becomes more commonplace.
  • Gaming presents a huge opportunity in terms of audience, but brands must navigate a vast landscape of platforms, titles, player personalities and publisher relationships.

Campaign US asked John Montgomery, GroupM’s global executive-VP of brand safety to share some of his takeaways from the latest guidance. See what he has to say below.


What do you find most noteworthy from the report? 

The rapid change in new risks (for the industry to stay on top of) – compared to a similar report written in August was particularly noteworthy. Aside from taking care of the digital fundamentals like video, display, mobile and social channels, new digital opportunities in out-of-home, digital audio, the emergence of gaming as a major commercial platform and location-based services add new opportunities and risks for advertisers to take into consideration. The playbook describes these but also lends practical advice on how to avoid the pitfalls when navigating each of these nascent opportunities.

Also, the news industry has been steadily weakened by (mainly) the ascendancy of the social platforms over the years and, just when things couldn’t get worse, grim news about COVID frightened many advertisers away. This had a devastating effect, particularly on local news. The playbook goes into some detail of the effects that COVID-19 and the protests had on the demonetization of news.

What surprised you? 

There were two surprises for me. First was that advertisers turned away from news so readily without real proof that adjacency to controversial news rubs off negatively on brands. This shows how concerned marketers still are about brand adjacency. There is still a belief amongst some advertisers that being near negative news potentially harms their brand image amongst consumers. As it happens, this is not true in the majority of cases.

Secondly, I was surprised by how well the advertiser market responded to the publicity about the damage this was doing to news. In March and April there were literally dozens of articles in the press highlighting the harm that aggressive keyword blocking was causing the news industry. Marketers listened. IAS research shows that there was an 80 percent drop in the blocking of the word "coronavirus" from March to May in the U.S. (77 percent in the U.K.). News is still net-down, but at least there is hope.

What do you believe the industry can learn from it?

What the industry can learn – from the news issue in particular – is that news is an effective medium because of longer dwell time and better trust, according to a Pew Research Center study. It is a critical, trusted source of truth in times like these. This is even more important than brand safety; it is about preserving a free press and democracy. GroupM has taken action by assembling lists of trusted news sources and creating preferred "safe lists" for agency programmatic buys. In addition, GroupM is sourcing international lists of local news publishers that accept programmatic advertising and presenting these to advertisers as effective additions to schedules. We encourage the rest of the industry to follow.

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