Google’s earnings announcement this week showcases how the company can seemingly do no wrong.
Ad revenues continue to grow -- even as some brands still refuse to spend their budgets on YouTube ad placements following those now infamous brand safety scandals of last year.
Diageo, for example, is continuing to avoid including the site within its campaign plans as part of a strict brand safety policy that has also seen it freeze spend with Snapchat.
Google has been on an offensive when it comes to brand safety, after facing industrywide backlash due to its brand safety breaches over the past 18 months. Bringing in both human and machine reinforcements, Google announced that it has hired 10,000 new employees and increased its investment in AI solutions -- but has not actually detailed how these changes work to increase brand safety.
While the company is seen to be making steps toward brand safety without deploying robust third-party technologies, can these be viewed as genuine efforts to provide brand safety, or are giants such as Google still not feeling the pressure to make changes while revenue continues to increase?
Experts from across the industry gathered earlier this year in a roundtable discussion in an attempt to find out “why is brand safety still such a big issue?” Brands, publishers, agencies and industry bodies discussed why brand safety still exists in a world where the technology needed to halt it exists and why the big players are not feeling any need to raise their standards, even after their failings were reported so publicly.
It seems that for the most part, there is a lack of responsibility when it comes to brand safety -- as well as confusion around who should be in control of how it is managed.
A brand marketer within the electronics industry explained how the complexity of the digital ad landscape makes it difficult for brands to grasp what will make their ad placements safe, and why agencies must have a responsibility to train and advise customers on brand safety strategy. No one can deny how complicated this ecosystem can be, so hearing from a brand that this has an impact on how far it delves into securing appropriate brand safety solutions should not come as much of a surprise.
Jay Rajdev, VP, Brand Solutions at Videology (now acquired by Amobee), explained that the conversation should be focused on context over format or channel, “and the minute we frame it around context, it becomes an agency problem and an agency solution.”
But while brands feel it is only natural for media agencies to take responsibility -- after all they advise on the media mix, so “shouldn’t they advise on brand safety strategy too?” – is this really feasible?
As Richard Reeves, managing director at The AOP, points out, “agencies aren’t psychic.” They need to be clear on their clients’ needs, and what topics and placements are going to have a negative impact on the brand. Brand safety isn’t just about avoiding obviously controversial topics, it’s about ensuring content does not contradict the brand’s values -- something a brand itself must understand and relay to its agencies.
But this isn’t the only issue. Interestingly, Ana Pak, global digital strategy and innovation director at Vizeum Global, raised the question of how brands give disproportionate guidance on brand identity such as "font size" compared to brand safety guidance, which is clearly a cause for concern. It also seems that brands are constantly weighing up their priorities -- revenue safety over brand safety, or environment over scale for example. As Pak confirmed, this often means that “unless something happens, they (clients) don’t ask” for brand safety to be included in the contract as a KPI.
Perhaps this is the real issue. If brands aren’t following in Diageo’s footsteps and prioritising the safety of their brand, why would companies such as Google continue to make the right changes? Currently there is no incentive to change unless there is a direct impact on revenue -- and from Google’s Q2 results, it’s clear to see this is not happening.
You could be forgiven for thinking that brands are blind to the potential impact of inappropriate ad placements. If they wait until something goes wrong then it will be too late -- the damage will have been done.
It is vital that the industry collaborates to make brand safety easier for all. The tools are available to do this.
But without consensus from the majority of brands, that prevention is a better defense than waiting for an issue to occur, the issue will never truly be resolved and will continue to risk a brand’s reputation in the eyes of consumers.
As Warren Buffet said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”