Advertisers may never have total control of brand safety

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 15 July 2015
Screenshot of ad pop-up on a torrent site

From pop-ups on porn hubs, flashing banner ads on illegal torrent domains and general spots and dots on shady sites - wading through the swirling, murky pool of brand safety is no mean feat for today's marketer – or media agency it seems.

As another brand falls prey to that undesirable online location, we question if brands can ever really peel back such impromptu appearances and if they even have the control they think they have.

Not long after bookmakers Ladbrokes came under fire in May, after adverts from the betting company popped up on kids' homework site, bookmakers, has this week been highlighted to AdNews as yet another brand popping up in places it ought not to

AdNews readers pointed out that its pop-up ads were frequenting an illegal movie torrent site, not far from eye shot of some somewhat XXX rated ads.

While Sportsbet is by no means alone, with other varying car and travel brands popping up, with so many measures in place, or said to be in place, how do these things happen?

Despite the somewhat dubious spot, speaking to AdNews, head of communications at Sportsbet, Ben Hawes, said it does have strict protocols in place which relate directly to brand safety.

He said the business has strict partner selection protocols, extensive use of exchange quality controls, proactive fraud detection, violator black listing, third party authentication technologies and custom site lists.

“In addition, we use white-listed network buys that provide visibility on the sites we are going to run on. We also use technical reviews. For example, DoubleClick ad blocking and double verify to prevent our ads being served against adult themes and negative keywords through Google Adwords.

He said the list of measures continues from there and “don’t stop in the ad space” and that “extensive man hours” also go into brand safety.

“It’s very clear from the above we take this seriously and by putting it into perspective of ad frequency we have an exemplary standing,” he said.

Given such an extensive list and a lack of actually saying anything was wrong with the screenshot torrent site-based pop-up ad we showed them, maybe brands do feel that there is only do much they can do.

Eighteen months ago, the IAB set up its Brand Safety Council after AdNews highlighted that a number of high-profile clients’ ads were appearing in places they shouldn’t be. In the wake of the revelations on what was dubbed ‘Black Thursday’, the IAB revealed that brands were falling victim to URL masking scams that circumvented ad networks and saw ads appear on illegal sites – and advertiser dollars go into the pockets of fraudsters.

There are always failures

IAB Ad Tech Advisory Council member and MD APAC of Integral Ad Science, Stephen Dolan, said it's definitely an  industry-wide issue and there are many instances where the content on the page is not an appropriate environment for a brand message.

“This happens on a daily basis on news sites, blogs or pages where user-generated content is inappropriate. It's quite often that a news story takes off, is covered by multiple outlets and generates huge number of impressions and reach,” Dolan said.

"If that story is controversial or is covering a violent act many clients would choose not to place their brand in that environment. This type of brand safety "fail" is significantly more prevalent than the example above."

He said as the internet is a fluid, ever-changing environment, black lists and white lists are ok to a point, but they do assume nothing will change. Dolan also stressed that the client has to take an active role in defining their brand safety guidelines and expectations and that their partners are using the best available tech and protocols to deliver.

“I've been working in ad tech and digital for 20 years and there are always failures. It's likely the folks who set up the page put a great deal of effort in hiding it's true identity to make a buck.

“Unfortunately, some pages slip through. It is not possible to have a real person constantly rating web pages one by one and so we are relying on algorithms to detect brand safety issues. In some cases this is very difficult especially for for things like hate speech and violence, but the benefit of using algorithms is that it gives us huge reach (95% of the web) and the benefits of being able to provide some brand safety guidance across that much of the web far outweighs the issue with some ads slipping through. We are aiming for 100% brand safety....and continue to refine and develop our tech to deliver."

In terms of who's job it is to ensure the ads don't appear in unwanted locations, Dolan saisd it's the agency and the client.

"Defining brand safety guidelines and thresholds is key -  then using appropriate tech and protocols to safeguard against a failure," he said.

"Probably stating the obvious, but standards and threshold for brand safety differ from client to client. Some would be ok with content that has mild offensive language, others would be horrified. Its important to note that if we are going to hold the agency and the client responsible for brand safety the publishers must allow the necessary blocking technology to run.

"If a publisher won't allow ads to be blocked on pages that are not appropriate for a brand then the publishers need to take complete responsibility for brand safety for every single client and because each client has different brand safety thresholds it would be very difficult for them to manage."

Brands need to demand more

Carolyn Bollaci, VP global accounts and head of ANZ, Sizmek, is also on the IAB's ad tech board.

She said greater accountability for vendors boosts advertiser trust in digital, ultimately leading to increased investment and growth for the Australian market.

“Brands should be demanding transparency from their partners so they can fully understand what measures they have in place to protect their brand online,” Bollaci said.

“More importantly, these brand safety features should be flexible as what’s considered ‘safe’ content for one brand, might not be the same for another.”

CEO of the IAB Alice Manners said this is a concern for the entire industry and requires an industry-wide behaviour change.

She said not all marketers and agencies fully understand the inner workings of the digital advertising supply chain. And that the path an ad travels today, from insertion order to the screens of a target group of consumers, can be a complicated maze to the buyer.

“Without trust between marketers, publishers, consumers, and the many parties in between, the growth of our industry is weakened. By extension this impacts all of the incredible innovations our industry supports,” Manners said.

The IAB's action plan

Manners outlined the following areas that the IAB is focused on:

1. Eliminating fraudulent traffic

“No economic model in which a significant percentage of the goods sold are fraudulent is sustainable. Bot-generated, non-human traffic must be identified and removed from the supply chain,” she said. 

She said the first step is to develop a common taxonomy so the entire ecosystem can speak the same language when talking about “transacting in only human traffic”.  

Secondly, she said we must have a set of principles, operational and technical in nature, that help guide sellers of inventory in the identification and filtering of fraudulent activity.
IAB’s Brand Safety Council earlier this year scoped the cause and nature of this problem and produced a set of definitions and will soon expand on this work.

2. Promote Brand Safety through Increased Transparency

She went on to say that not all marketers and agencies fully understand the inner workings of the digital advertising supply chain and as IAB US CEO Randal Rothenberg has commented, “Even if you know that your own suppliers are reliable, you can’t tell whether your suppliers’ suppliers are secure.”

In an attempt to build openness, understanding and trust, the IAB US has launched Quality Assurance Guidelines focused on “clear, common language that describes characteristics of advertising inventory and transactions across the advertising value chain.” Manners said locally the IAB is currently assessing the appetite for a similar programme in Australia.

3. Create Accountability 

Manners said principles and guidelines are only effective when you have industry-wide adoption and compliance.  

“This kind of accountability ensures each participant can rely on the multitude of other actors in the supply chain to do the right thing,” Manners added.

“Without it, trust erodes. A range of IAB working groups from the IAB Ad Technology group to the IAB & MFA Agency Advisory Group and our Standards and Guidelines Council will be focusing on addressing this in the new FY.”

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