Tim Hussain, Head of Digital at Ebiquity UK, believes that the action taken by advertisers and agencies in the face of uncontrolled placement of ads on Google and YouTube represents just the tip of the iceberg.

There have been some pretty seismic announcements in recent days in the world of digital advertising.

Havas, one of the world’s biggest media agency groups, has pulled all its UK adspend from Google and YouTube because – in the agency’s words – Google had been “unable to provide specific reassurances, policy and guarantees that their video or display content is classified either quickly enough or with the correct filters.”[1] Havas spends £175m on digital advertising in the UK each year on behalf of major advertisers including EDF, O2, and Royal Mail.

This move followed the decision by the UK government, the BBC, the Guardian, and Transport for London to pull advertising from Google and YouTube. What’s more, Google has been summoned to appear before the Cabinet Office, which operates as the gatekeeper to the government’s marketing budgets. It has been asked to explain why government advertising placed by Google’s AdX programmatic ad exchange is appearing alongside inappropriate or offensive content, including American white supremacist, Islamic extremist, and fake news sites.

And just yesterday, both L’Oréal and Argos announced they were pulling their advertising from Google and YouTube too.

It is clear that the current swirl of advertiser and agency pressure on the world’s biggest digital platform marks a watershed moment in the (to-date) short history of programmatic advertising. But, I would argue, we are just scratching the surface of questions advertisers should ask about where their budgets are being spent and how they can ensure they are brand safe.

Advertising on non-disclosed media across mobile apps and video formats needs to be looked at urgently, and should be as concerning to advertisers as the recent news about misplacements on YouTube. The issue is that the brand safety technologies in the market have a significantly reduced ability to monitor across video and mobile app formats. This means that the millions of pounds (if not billions) which is being spent across non-disclosed inventory sources may not have the necessary safeguards in place to protect against brand safety issues.

When you consider that, in 2015, almost £1bn was spent programmatically on mobile in the UK[2] – a figure likely to increase when figures for 2016 become available- it becomes very apparent that the scale of investment is now so large it must be given significant attention. A key concern is that many non-disclosed trading desks and intermediaries such as ad networks don’t provide adequate transparency for advertisers. The challenge is both technical and nuanced and not enough marketers have first-hand experience of ensuring transparency here.

In this environment, what should advertisers do? We’ve got a five-point action plan.

  1. Insist upon a clear explanation of how those buying your media are monitoring mobile app and video inventory for brand safety across non-disclosed sellers of media. And make sure you’re 100% happy with the approach.
  2. Don’t allow any activity to run where you are unable to independently verify – at any time of your choosing – the sites, URLs, or apps on which your campaigns have been delivered.
  3. Run ad verification tracking across all of your campaigns, check results yourself and question any unknowns. Make sure you are getting access to the verification providers’ actual reports and make sure you get the URL and mobile app level information from them.
  4. Use a whitelist of approved sites and mobile apps – and then a blacklist.  Whitelist first is a better approach, as blacklists won’t prevent risks you don’t know about yet.
  5. Set up financial incentives – both positive and negative – to ensure that the right focus is given in achieving brand safety in digital.

Speaking to the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) at the end of January, P&G’s Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard called time on the “murky at best, fraudulent at worst” digital advertising industry. The action in the UK market over the past week makes it clear that the stuck-record mantra of “just trust us” won’t wash anymore. For the first time, the advertising community is calling for proper transparency, and is prepared to withdraw its support from the biggest players in the industry until it’s satisfied that it gets the transparency it wants.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the focus on YouTube isn’t justified. It’s just that the issues are much deeper and more widespread than current media coverage suggests. All links in the digital advertising ecosystem are looking to make money, which is not a bad thing. But this objective must never override brand safety and transparency of media delivery. No other large medium is sold without the ability to check where the advertising was actually delivered. You could never imagine £10m being spent on TV marketing without knowing which broadcasters it ran on, which channels it ran against, or which programs the advertising was associated with. But, in online advertising, many of us unfortunately accept this as normal, and it’s probably about time we started to challenge some of the new norms of the past ten years more robustly.



[1] http://bit.ly/2mWMuje

[2] Source: Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) UK