Brand safety: How the YouTube kerfuffle is playing out in APAC

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Reaction has been measured, and insiders welcome the much-needed attention to what is certain to be a long-term issue.

Brand-safety concerns have led to headlines in the west, as some brands and agencies slammed the "stop" button on YouTube advertising after their ads appeared on content posted by terrorist groups.

But reaction among APAC brands has been more muted, and insiders contacted by Campaign Asia-Pacific see the controversy—like ad fraud, viewability and adblocking before it—as both a good learning moment and a necessary step in a long-term evolution toward smarter online advertising.

Scott McBride, APAC chief digital officer with IPG Mediabrands, told Campaign Asia-Pacific that brands have voiced concerns, and some Asia-based brands have paused their advertising until they’re more confident the processes put into place will work for their businesses. There’s been no real pattern to the reactions, he added; multinational and local brands are responding on a market-by market basis.

Another source, who works in a programmatic position within a media network, said that while some local brands have taken action, most of the brands suspending all activity have been multinationals. That may be due to an overall lower level of digital sophistication in the region. For example, the source said his company has had to help clients understand that the issue only impacts YouTube, and not Google’s other advertising media.

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All sources contacted agreed that the issue is nothing new—it’s one publishers in particular have been "shouting about" for a long time, as the anonymous source put it. Nor will it be solved in the short-term. But overall, the attention is welcome.

Joe Nguyen, APAC senior vice president with ComScore, felt coverage of the issue has been a bit overblown given the tiny volume of advertising that has actually appeared against unsavory content. "Because Google has dominated online video advertising for so long, and at such a large scale, local publishers are taking the chance to take a punch at Google when they can," he said. In that light, it’s interesting to note that Google is getting lambasted more than Facebook in the press, he added.

Likewise, Nguyen felt some brands have overreacted, or reacted for wholly understandable PR reasons. "Shutting off all Facebook or YouTube is just silly," he said, adding that, for example, YouTube’s channel partners are well understood and represent a relatively safe pool of content.

What happens now
Nguyen expects that in the short-term, Google will come out with more measures to address the immediate issue, and spending will come back.

"Google understands the pressure they are under," McBride agreed.

For Google’s part, a spokesperson pointed to the company’s global, official blog posts on the matter, and added the following statement:

As announced, we’ve begun an extensive review of our advertising policies and have made a public commitment to put in place changes that give brands more control over where their ads appear. While we recognize that no system will be 100 percent perfect, we believe these major steps will further safeguard our advertisers’ brands and we are committed to being vigilant and continuing to improve over time.

Nguyen agreed strongly with the "over time" part. "Brand safety is an icky, and not so straightforward thing," he said. While it should be fairly easy to blacklist terrorist or hate sites, other scenarios are more subtle and will require heavy-duty technology to tackle.

Everyone has seen horrifying examples of bad display-ad placement—an airline ad on a news story about a plane crash being a prototypical and obvious example. Analyzing text-based content for context clues is fairly advanced, yet even that fails in some cases. And video is a much more intensive problem, Nguyen said.

Given the sheer volume of content posted every day, the responsibility for analyzing video for brand safety will have to rest on the likes of Google and Facebook, he said. Neither brands nor agencies nor third parties have the capacity to keep tabs on the deluge of video content posted each day. Yet Google, for example, already polices intellectual property on YouTube videos. "They'll strip out Katy Perry if you had her playing in the background," he said, so they should be in a good position to step up brand-safety analysis.

Still, brands will have to get comfortable with some level of risk. "Yes, you have to do certain brand safety hygiene, but you can never be 100 percent brand safe," Nguyen concluded.

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