Media agencies to avoid Google ban after Havas UK, government and TfL freeze YouTube ads

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 20 March 2017
Transport for London is one of several government agencies that have temporarily pulled the brakes on YouTube and Google display advertising.

Havas Media UK has become the first major media agency to pause all advertising from YouTube and the Google Display Network amid concerns over brand safety.

Other media agency networks AdNews has approached are closely monitoring the situation but do not have plans for blanket bans at this stage.

Havas Media UK joins a growing list of clients in the UK who have also paused their ad spend with Google's display and video networks, including the government, Transport for London, the Financial Conduct Authority, The Guardian, Channel 4 and L'Oréal.

The move is isolated to its UK operations only. Havas says it had taken the decision on behalf of its UK clients which include O2, Royal Mail, the BBC and Dominos.

In a statement, Havas UK country manager and CEO Paul Frampton said: "We have a duty of care to our clients in the UK marketplace to position their brands in the right context where we can be assured that that environment is safe, regulated to the degree necessary and additive to their brands' objectives.

"Our teams are working with the brands we represent to select alternative partners where we are confident of the third party verification and safety guarantees.”

Havas UK Frampton Calero tweet

Havas is reported to spend about A$280 million per year on digital media in the UK. Although it is the only media agency to take such a bold stand against the digital media giant, other media agency bosses have warned that digital media brand safety needs to improve.

Havas Australia auditing brand safety

Havas Australia CEO Mike Wilson tells AdNews the UK pause on spend is not a global measure, but the agency is closely scrutinising brand safety for clients in Australia.

"We're scrutinising that aspect of our operations quite closely at the moment and doing audits to make sure clients are protected and nothing untoward is occurring in the placement and environment," Wilson says.

"The chief executive Paul Frampton has made a statement saying that clients are their first priority and they need to do whatever they can to make sure clients are protected. The information I've seen suggests it's only a temporary measure and they are working with Google to get everything on track as soon as they can."

GroupM won't implement blanket ban 

GroupM has admitted its clients are "highly concerned" about brand safety but only a handful had asked for advertising to be pulled from YouTube and Google Display Network.

WPP's media buying arm will not implement any sort of blanket ban on advertising across Google assets but is working with digital media providers to allay the concerns of clients. 

"Digital advertising on platforms where content is user-generated and not curated has inherent brand safety risks. GroupM vigorously pursues every brand safety precaution and technology available to mitigate these risks, and we encourage all clients to make use of these tools.," GroupM said in a statement.

"At the highest levels, we have communicated with Google, Facebook, Snapchat and other partners to encourage their development of solutions. However, a 100% foolproof system may not be possible. It’s important that brands know this and proceed with caution – as well as with available safety tools."

In an interview with The Drum, GroupM chief digital officer Rob Norman says GroupM's role is to provide clients with as much information as possible on the brand safety risks with advertising on digital media channels and then it's up to the client how they would like to proceed. 

WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell has previously spoken out against Google’s reassurances that it has allayed brand safety concerns after an initial Times report exposed the problem was widespread.

"The fundamental issue is that you [Google] have to take responsibility for this as a media company. You are not a passive digital engineer tightening the digital types with your digital spanner and not responsible for the flow through of content of those pipes, you are responsible for it,” Sorrell said.

Dentsu Aegis Network - 'We need to be ever vigilant and responsive'

Dentsu Aegis Network AUNZ CEO Simon Ryan tells AdNews the media agency group is closely monitoring the situation and has ongoing discussion with clients as a matter of course.

"As programmatic advertising continues to grow, we need to be ever vigilant and responsive, working with clients and partners to ensure brand advertising only appears in brand safe environments," Ryan says. "We continually review our practices in this area and monitor the situation to ensure we act as required now and in the future. 

"We have ongoing discussions with our clients around brand safety as a matter of course, not simply as a reaction to the recent media reports. As an organisation we conduct extensive work with our clients to develop brand safety protocols at the brand level, which will positively influence all their activities."

Ryan says it is the responsibility of agencies, publishers and clients to collaboratively ensure brand advertising safety. This involves reviewing the latest technology in the marketplace.

"As an organisation we conduct extensive work with our clients to develop brand safety protocols at the brand level, which will positively influence all their activities." 

Publicis Media reviews Google relationship

Publicis Media says that Google has "fallen short" of the brand safety standards it holds publishers accountable to.

In a statement, Publicis Groupe's buying arm says: "Publicis Media is committed to being at the forefront of rigorous brand safety, viewability and verification standards and protocols.

"We hold all publishers, including Google and YouTube, accountable to ensure that the highest standards of advertising are consistently met. Clearly, Google has fallen short of these standards. We are reviewing how we work with them moving forward."  

UK government wants assurances

On Friday, the UK government warned Google it was responsible for ensuring its ads were placed against appropriate content.

“We have placed a temporary restriction on our YouTube advertising pending reassurances from Google that government messages can be delivered in a safe and appropriate way,” a government spokesperson said.

The brand safety issue hit the headlines after an investigation by The Times revealed several blue chip brands had their ads unwittingly placed against inappropriate content, including videos by terrorist sympathisers, far right nationalist groups and pornographers.

AdNews discovered the problem is not isolated and that brands in Australia are also susceptible to the threat.

GroupM's director of technical operations Timothy Whitfield said there is no way to completely guarantee brand safety on digital media and MCN's digital partnerships and product development director Suzie Cardwell said when you buy against an audience on YouTube at a relatively low cost, you run the risk of having ads placed against unsuitable content.

Google: 'We must do better'

In a blog, Google UK managing director Ronan Harris says the digital media company needs to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and banning "hate speech, gory or offensive content".

Each year Google removes nearly two billion bad ads and last year removed 100,000 publishers from its AdSense program, preventing ads from serving to more than 300 million YouTube videos.

"However, with millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognise that we don't always get it right. In a very small percentage of cases, ads appear against content that violates our monetisation policies," Harris adds.

"We’ve heard from our advertisers and agencies loud and clear that we can provide simpler, more robust ways to stop their ads from showing against controversial content.

"While we have a wide variety of tools to give advertisers and agencies control over where their ads appear, such as topic exclusions and site category exclusions, we can do a better job of addressing the small number of inappropriately monetised videos and content."

Google has begun a review of its ads policies and brand controls and in the coming weeks will be providing brands with more control over where ads appear across YouTube and Google Display Network.

"We are committed to working with publishers, advertisers and agencies to address these issues and earn their trust every day so that they can use our services both successfully and safely."

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