Media outlets, including this one, have fanned the flames over brand safety the last few weeks as Google seeks to reassure advertisers that it’s putting the right measures into place to safeguard against their ads showing up next to offensive content. It’s already said that it’s added new tech-based filters and human eyes to review content on Google’s YouTube after a U.K.-based newspaper reporting finding marketers’ ads adjacent to hate-filled content on the digital video network.
To be sure, brand safety has always been an issue for marketers. That’s not new. What is new is that many have announced in recent weeks that they’ve suspended non-search advertising with Google until it can reassure them about brand safety.
But ad vet Kevin Ryan, founder of Motivity Marketing, a digital media buying and planning firm that also does strategy work, took a decidedly contrarian view.
“This is an awesome, useful distraction. It’s in Google’s best interest to get the media back up and running. The cold, harsh reality is that it’s in everyone’s [agencies' and advertisers] best interests to get this back up and running,” Ryan said. Further, he said the actual percentage of questionable inventory “is so infinitesimally small that it’s much ado about nothing." Ryan noted that the brouhaha is a “nice distraction" from the “scandals” about the lack of transparency over agency fees and commissions.
Ryan pointed out that no one in the industry, thus far, has assigned a dollar value to the inventory that’s been suspended from Google by advertisers, noting that it’s only been “suspended” temporarily, not pulled, permanently. “The holding companies are making so much money on media they would be foolish to say ‘we’re going to stop buying media.’” That’s because the margins are so much higher for straight digital media buying than for buying search advertising. In programmatic, agencies are making margins well into in the double digits, and not disclosing them.
It looks like the holding companies are stepping up a bit and it's obviously in their best interests to do so. Omnicom Group took measures to demonstrate its commitment to brand safety, saying it's put new safeguards into place for YouTube videos. The tool uses automated scanning and human beings to score and whitelist content on the platform. WPP last week said it would partner with OpenSlate, a social analytics company, to review YouTube content.
On whether the media value of the advertising suspension will become important, Ryan said: “It’s going to be material if the advertisers actually pull out, but they’re not, the advertising is being placed on hold.”
He added, “This is what’s going to happen. Agencies will go back to clients and say ‘here are the filters, we believe they work,' and Google will have some sort of guidelines for flagging content.” However, in the end, he said, “You’re still dealing with an imperfect world. It’s not all puppies and kittens.”
Ryan maintained that if the number of ad placements affected on YouTube had been big, Google would have come out and said what that percentage was. It hasn’t. But it’s in the awkward position of having to reassure and educate advertisers. Agencies should be educating advertisers as well that it’s not possible to guarantee 100% of the time that their ads won’t appear next to offensive content.
So what’s next? Ryan has no specific knowledge what Google’s plans are, but envisions it developing a process for flagging inappropriate content, in addition to the algorithms that it’s tweaking daily to look for that content, as well as the human eye. It’s also likely to share best practices with advertisers akin to what it’s done with SEO algorithms: “We’ll give you best practices on things that will affect your search rankings—this will be the same thing—but no secret sauce will be shared,” Ryan said.