What YouTube's latest brand safety fiasco really tells us

Digital transformation at Best Practice Advertising Victor Condogeorges
By Digital transformation at Best Practice Advertising Victor Condogeorges | 27 February 2019
Victor Condogeorges

Brand safety. It's really not that hard. Unless you're advertising on YouTube that is.

Like a broken record, YouTube's brand safety problems are making the headlines. My advice is to not panic, don't turn off your investment with some knee-jerk reaction, and if you must turn it off to investigate, don't announce it for your competitors to take advantage of the clear space you've just opened up.

See: Coles latest brand to suspend YouTube ads

Chasing efficiency may result in less thinking

For some totally unnecessary reason, brand safety companies have had a field day protecting brands from poorly set up campaigns, minimal human optimisation, and scantily thought out plans. This cost then gets passed on to the advertiser as though it is some sort of mandatory tax imposed by an extortionate Mafia convincing you they want to protect your brand from the dangers of online content.

This protection tax, in turn, has an impact on the overall advertising investment available to achieve results. If you have less to invest, you end up needing to do more with less, a common perspective of the trend that is occurring before our very own eyes. This leads us to chase an efficiency target that usually leads agencies to achieve efficiency in creative ways, such as the side effects satirical commentator Morgan discussed and Willie Pang ratified last week. That exchange was virtually poetic and exceptionally brave. I can't wait to see the next developments in the new-age thinking of treating staff like humans with lives outside of the office.

There's obviously a lot that happens in between this to get us to this point and I'm not pinning this entirely on technology costs, but the nub of this argument is that there has continually been less thought at the setup stage because teams don't really have the time, resources, or even best practices put in place to ensure brands are in safe hands when it comes to YouTube ads. Having been involved in many pitches and wins, I frequently see significant thought time and effort go into the strategy stage. This is important, don't get me wrong. Unfortunately, however, all this effort and thought often doesn't come to life. Unclear instructions provided at the implementation stage usually result in more effort than necessary, less time to do more, and with that, you've landed on delivering executions that are weakly connected to the strategic insight.
In essence, the baton isn't passed on as cleanly as it needs to be to win the race.

This then gets the implementers to find a solution. Prioritising audience becomes a go-to solution that sounds like it will deliver and they begin to focus recommendations towards audience led campaigns as there is minimal thought perceived to be required on the content and context that ads will be appearing on. Thus creating a brand safety danger zone for advertisers - and a great opportunity for brand safety providers desperate to prove their value and justify the tech tax. This is an inconvenient truth that misguided so many 'programmatic' campaigns over the past few years.

There is also another pressure on staff, an external time pressure that coerces them into letting technology do what it was sold in to do, be more efficient with time, reduce time wasted on menial tasks, and, controversially, help employers be more "efficient" with the distribution of staff remuneration.

See: What's the life of an advertising person worth?

I've found time and time again however, technology can achieve a two-dimensional result based on metrics alone. It can get you the CPA you want, but it might not be from the type of people you want to buy your product - something that is important but often overlooked. There is a layer missing from the metrics that pertain to interpreting context. Not contextual targeting, but the reason why a brand might not want to be appearing on specific content, even though the person viewing the content might be the exact person who spends the most on your brand.

The reason we are seeing this problem repeatedly with YouTube is not because of the responsibility of YouTube policing the content or the platform. It has to do with the way these campaigns were set up.

Before you get carried away, no I'm not saying the most recent videos embroiled in the YouTube fiasco should be on the platform. I'm asking, how was advertising on questionable content and channels approved?

At some stage, there was a campaign that was planned, and a target audience defined. Imagine if you saw a slide in a deck that says you'll be advertising on TV. In order to feel comfortable with your investment, you'll probably ask about the programming strategy. This gives you an understanding of the channels you're investing in and the content you'll be supporting.
Unfortunately for YouTube, however, the market persistence of affinity audience targeting misguides you to focus on getting an idea of who but never get up-front clarity on the where. FYI, YouTube is not the where.

Who should be held accountable?

What this fiasco basically uncovers is the fact that these channels and videos weren't vetted before being added to the campaign. There was a reach target to hit, the CPM may have been too high, the reach numbers weren't being met, or the campaign isn't spending its budget. All of these reasons point to the campaign not being planned or set up correctly, not an issue with the platform or content displayed.

Ask the right questions
If you want to have a heart attack, ask for the YouTube 'where my ads appeared' list for any activity you've run in the past year. If there's anything in that list that doesn't seem like something you've targeted, you can postulate that the team responsible for implementation has fallen down this same efficiency trap, hasn't had the support, leadership, or guidance to set the standard high enough to protect your brand.

Never reduce the quality of what you're buying just to spend the planned budget.

So what can we do to fix it? Pull investment from the behemoth of the platform because we bought into some affinity audience crap? No, this is not the right answer. I don't imagine those at Google are quivering in their boots. They know you'll be back, just like all those others that cut their budgets last time went back. The fact is there are people on the platform and there is more valuable video content to align yourself with than crap on there.

The right thing to do is to pause, review, plan, and reactivate with learnings

Pick where you want to be, treat the platform with the rigour it needs, and stop thinking "It's digital, it should be more efficient and take less time to set up and manage". The fact is that without the right best practices in place, things do take more time.

If you want to see these brand safety problems come up time and time again, keep doing what you've always done. You'll keep getting what you've always gotten. The thing to do right now is to consider pausing, review your activity, make a detailed plan, and reactivate with learnings.

Three key takeaways from this article:

  1. Efficiency is the fastest way to get to zero, perpetuating the "do more for less" paradigm.
  2. Plan YouTube with the rigour you plan TV by thinking about the channel and the content.
  3. Avoid the "audience before context" ideology that is degrading trust in the technology.
comments powered by Disqus