How To Manage Brand Safety In Today’s Digital Advertising Environment

Recent controversies have thrust brand safety into the headlines, but brands, agencies, and media outlets are all taking steps to reduce risk, especially when it comes to programmatic ad buying.

Brand safety is a risk reduction strategy typically associated with advertising, and with programmatic ad buying more specifically. No company wants their digital ads showing up next to vulgar or offensive content, nor do they want their brand associated with fringe political content or websites that generally have a poor reputation.

According to a recent press release about a survey by the Trustworthy Accountability Group and the Brand Safety Institute, more than 80% of consumers said they would reduce or stop buying a product they purchase regularly if it was advertised alongside extreme or dangerous content. For this reason, brand safety must also go far beyond ad buying.

In procurement, your brand is associated with every entity in your supply chain, whether they are a company, agency, individual contractor, or media outlet. Brands can take plenty of steps to mitigate risk in their supply network. Take the Coca-Cola Company's Contractor Safety Program as an example. It provides third-party contractors with an orientation and certification program to ensure they meet OSHA guidelines, fire codes, and other regulations.

When buying ads, most brands work hard to avoid associating themselves with controversy. But if the worst happens, all they can do is react. Some of the world's biggest brands were recently forced to pull ads from YouTube after learning that they were advertising next to exploitative content laden with inappropriate user comments.

As it is with most sites that host user-generated content, this isn't the first time YouTube has gotten into trouble over ad placement. In 2017, several multi-national brands pulled their ads from the platform after learning their ads were appearing next to videos promoting extremist views and other offensive content.

As programmatic ad-buying becomes more important and the supply chain gets more complex, it's up to brands, procurement teams, agencies, and media outlets to become more proactive.

Reducing Risk in Ad Buying

Because of a slew of controversies over programmatic ads appearing in questionable places, many companies are reducing their spend, or even shuttering their programmatic programs altogether. AdWeek recently reported that one-third of digital advertisers reduced their programmatic ad spend from 2017 to 2018.

Instead, brands are shifting that spend to direct ad buying - which is generally thought to be safer -while they rethink their programmatic strategies.

Agencies are also taking additional steps to reduce risk, which is necessary if they wish to continue to appeal to brands.

According to an article from eMarketer in 2018, Trusted Media Brands and Advertiser Perceptions surveyed 300 U.S. agency respondents and learned that most agencies have already taken or plan to take steps to make their client's brands safer.

For example, 66% had already blacklisted specific sites and 58% had already worked to avoid or limit ads on political sites.

Nonetheless, there were still gaps in agencies' brand safety efforts. Less than half (48%) had taken steps to mitigate risk on sites containing user-generated content, and only 47% said they would increase their use of contextual targeting.

Brands will need to work directly with their agency partners to reduce risk. But during the procurement phase, brands can also demand more transparency. It pays to be selective about who you do business with, especially when your brand's reputation is on the line.

Facebook's Brand Safety Certification

Facebook, who is no stranger to controversy itself, is one brand and content outlet that is taking proactive steps to address brand safety. In January 2019, the social media giant announced the formulation of a new Brand Safety Certification for Facebook Marketing Partners, which enables approved groups to implement block lists on behalf of their clients through the Facebook Ads API.

"The capability recognizes companies offering proprietary solutions that can help Facebook advertisers review content options and control where their ads will appear," said Facebook in a post about the announcement. "We want to continue providing Facebook advertisers with more options for managing their brand safety controls."

Facebook originally announced two trusted third-party partners, DoubleVerify and OpenSlate. In June, they announced one more: Integral Ad Science (IAS).

With the amount of user content uploaded to Facebook on a given day, it's a challenge for the company to guarantee advertisers that their ads won't show up near questionable content. But the certification program is a step in the right direction as it ropes in third-party experts to assist in the endeavor.

Final Thoughts

Moving forward, ad procurement will require additional steps to ensure brand safety. For one, brands should only choose vendors who can provide reasonable guarantees of risk reduction.

They should also demand more transparency, or at least the ability to choose the types of content which will be associated with their ads. This can get tricky, as blocking out entire content categories can impact ROI. But more and more media outlets and ad platforms are recognizing the importance of providing their advertisers with more tools and more options.

Lastly, brands should take all available steps to avoid running afoul of age and regulatory restrictions. If tools are available to verify the ages of audiences and adjust targeting parameters based on locations and regulatory environments, they should be utilized.

It will be interesting to see where the programmatic ad space goes from here. While most players are taking steps to address risk, there's still plenty of work to be done by all involved.

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