Facebook held last-minute boycott meeting with media agency 'frenemies'

Everson: led Facebook's video conference with agencies on eve of July boycott
Everson: led Facebook's video conference with agencies on eve of July boycott

WW is latest brand to suspend Facebook advertising. But is it time for media agencies to be more vocal?

Facebook held an emergency roundtable with senior media agency leaders this week in an attempt to assuage their concerns over its hate-speech moderation policies on the eve of this month’s advertisers boycott.

Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vice-president of global marketing solutions, led an hour-long global conference with agencies on 30 June, flanked by public policy director Neil Potts and vice-president of integrity Guy Rosen.

It was, according to one observer, "their sell to agencies and clients that they’re on top of this and there’s nothing to worry about."

Nick Baughan, Facebook’s UK and Ireland director of agencies, billed the meeting as a "global partner roundtable session" in which it would provide the "latest policy announcements from Friday last week and responses to the asks from the boycott organisers in the US". Agencies were only told about the meeting the previous day (29 June).

The Facebook executives mostly reiterated statements that had been announced publicly on Friday, after founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg scrambled into action shortly after Unilever, the world’s second-biggest advertiser, announced it would suspend social media advertising for the remainder of the year. More July boycotts were announced by Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Diageo over the weekend.

Some advertisers, meanwhile, have chosen to quietly suspend their Facebook advertising this month. WW, the weight-loss brand formerly known as Weight Watchers, has suspended activity on all Facebook platforms, Campaign can reveal. The company, which spends almost £700,000 annually on Facebook advertising in the UK, did not respond when Campaign approached the company for comment. 

In the roundtable, Everson and her colleagues repeated their claim that Facebook now removes 89% of hate speech with automated tools before anyone sees it, up from 23% from three years ago. Facebook also told agencies that it is working with civil-rights groups to audit policy and this new audit will be complete by the end of August. 

However, according to one UK digital agency executive, "Facebook hasn’t done enough to move the dial and regain that advertiser trust. I think, for a lot of advertisers, they’re just looking at November [the US presidential election] and thinking ‘I don’t want anything to do with that’. They have some of the best AI in the world for content analysis. But 11% is still a shit-ton of content [hate speech which is not picked up by automated tools before being reported by users and actioned]."

The executive added: "In this current climate, no CMO is going to get beaten up by a CFO and say we’re going to stop spending on Facebook and shove that money back into their bottom line instead." 

Speaking to Campaign this week, UK media agencies privately seem ambivalent about recommending staying on the platform because they are not incentivised with trading arrangements as they are with broadcasters. Facebook does not do trading deals with media agencies in the same way that a broadcaster traditionally would.

Nick Manning, Manning Gottlieb OMD co-founder and founder of business mentoring service Encylomedia, described media agencies and Facebook as "frenemies" given the reluctant and transactional nature of their relationship. 

"Facebook's customer base is not the classic media agency mix, it's the long tail – large performance-driven and media agencies tend not to have a lot of performance-based advertisers" Manning told Campaign. "Facebook and Google have been very good at developing direct relationships with clients. Media agencies feel cut out of the loop."

According to another UK agency chief: "For the media agencies, commercially, there’s no bad thing in this. If this was ITV, there would be a commercial backstop in the conversation. But, instead, Facebook incentivises agencies to take as much training as they can to get accredited in the platform. They’re very transparent about this and there’s no incentives around spend. Agencies make money anyway and there’s no revenue that flows back from Facebook to agencies and their clients."

But the majority of big brands – let alone the "long tail" of smaller advertisers that may regard Facebook as the only game in town – have opted to stay on the platform and are reluctant to turn down the huge collective reach and targeting capabilities that Facebook and Instagram offer.

Another global media buyer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, described Facebook as a drug that many clients are unable to kick because the platform is "extremely cheap and efficient". 

"The problem is," he explained, "Facebook Ads become even more efficient if you have a load of advertisers leave the auction, so there is this paradox in becoming more attractive despite the negative publicity. A lot of clients do this crazy dance where they ask me to do serious digging into Facebook – is it really worth it, what are the brand-safety issues… but then many of them love going on Carolyn Everson’s ski trip every year."

Those that have boycotted Facebook this month are described as falling into three camps that are evenly split: those that put those spend savings back into the business; those that put that money into other social media as a test; and those that redirect Facebook spend into Google and Amazon. 

Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that outdoor apparel companies that are part of the boycott, including The North Face, which was among the very first to announce the move, are redirecting their spend to proven performance channels on Google, with some reportedly moving more money to Amazon and Pinterest, among other digital media channels.

However, Manning is clear that media agencies have missed an opportunity to take the lead in helping brands take a stand over Facebook’s policies towards hate speech and misinformation, with the exception of Dentsu’s 360i, an integrated creative and media shop, in the US. 

"The boycotts are being led by brands themselves and not the media agencies. What the brands are doing is standing up for themselves as this is a top-level corporate reputation matter," Manning explained. "The media agencies have become very beholden to the media owners specifically and not taking a lead when they probably should.

"Media agencies have been reluctant to raise their voices, apart from [Intiative global chief executive] Mat Baxter, who tried this two years ago and got contradicted by [Interpublic chief executive] Michael Roth.

"Unfortunately, you can’t operate without Facebook and you don’t want to piss them off."

When asked to comment on the specifics of what was discussed at the roundtable, a Facebook spokesman told Campaign that 35,000 safety and security professionals actively review potentially violating content, including content that is shared in private groups. 

The spokesman added: "We are exploring ways to make moderators more accountable for the content in groups they moderate, like providing more education on our community standards and increasing the requirements on moderating potential bad actors. This isn’t work that ever finishes. We recognise our responsibility to help change the trajectory of hate speech."

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