By Paul Kasamias, Managing Partner – Performance, Starcom
Brand safety is a topic that spans the entire media and advertising ecosystem and remains a genuine concern for marketing professionals, now more than ever. In 2020, this is fuelled by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, rise of fake news and misinformation, greater consumer demands on privacy and technology developments across the advertising sphere.
The very notion of keeping a brand safe, acting responsibly and therefore protecting its equity is far from new. In the social and user-generated content space, brands were quick to adopt by setting up community management teams to manage social media handles.
As the advertising world becomes increasingly complex, and advertisers move to a digital-first approach, there will naturally be a greater focus from senior stakeholders within brands.
The concept of brand safety does however hold different meaning to various stakeholder groups within an organisation. The outbreak of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have caused brands to pause and reconsider how they interface with consumers during difficult times. Consumers demand and expect more from brands and tech companies to drive positive change and use their voices to be forces for good.
This is epitomised by the BLM movement calling for advertisers to be actively ‘anti-racist’ rather than passively ‘not-racist’. Lockdown has also been a catalyst for increasing levels of social media usage and user-generated content, making it increasingly complex for brands to maintain full control when attempting to reach their target audience at scale.
As we face the real possibility of entering a global recession, the market dynamics are creating real points of tension. Media procurement departments will still want the most cost effective media plans brought, brand marketers will champion premium content (brand takeovers for example) and controlled environments.
Time for compromise
There will need to be a compromise of some sort. Ultimately, the more stringent the brand safety measure, the greater narrowing of targeting and therefore diminishing performance and business outcomes. It is clear the landscape will continue to evolve rapidly, as brand verification and safety partners become a business as usual requirement.
Over the last few months, we have experienced the significant impact of stringent inclusion and exclusion lists and topics (COVID, BLM) on the advertising ecosystem. As the pandemic grew, it was reported that the industry’s standard practice for brands was to avoid all Political and Health related topics.
However, the implications of doing so put the entire ecosystem in a slump, resulting in reputable news sites seeing significant falls in revenues. In one of the great ironies of 2020, news sites have seen their largest ever traffic numbers as consumers are desperate for the latest news, while some brands have completely dropped off their spending due to blanket exclusion of the key term ‘coronavirus’ – even despite agency advice against this.
Clearly, something needs to change here and it’s up to publishers, advertisers and agencies to work together on a common solution that works for all parties.
The notion of brand safety will continue to grow in sophistication. Brands will strive to find the perfect blend of machine learning and automation versus manual input, when assessing viable ad placements. In addition, as technologies develop, we will see a greater level of maturity in brand safety conversations.
We’re likely to see the emergence of the ‘brand voice maturity index’. The below framework will allow brands to plot themselves in different stages of maturity:
Nascent is to be Brand Safe. Ensuring a brand’s perception and identity is protected at all times. This would apply the most stringent measures, incorporating keyword inclusion and exclusions lists and topics/categories. Brands operating in this space will quickly hit a ceiling in their maximum reach, as consumer media behaviour pivots to an increased consumption of UGC.
Emerging is to be Brand Suitable. Ensuring a brand has the tools and expertise to appear in the right environments aligned with the brand values, without completely limiting the placements they can appear around. Proactively looking for suitable environments amongst controversial topics to appear. Using a degree of natural language processing to understand context and truer categorisation of online content. Having a clear and consistent framework as to what is acceptably suitable versus what is entirely and traditionally brand safe, and being able to defend that position against stakeholder questioning.
Advanced is to be Brand Proactive. Actively using the right blend of machine AI and human intervention to proactively position and adapt creative dynamically to suit context. This means a brand is continually proactively seeking opportunities to extend coverage in the right contexts, backed up with an ongoing algorithmic sentiment score. Advancing into this area will require a high degree of reliance on data and technology rather than human intervention, which creates an opportunity for the most progressive and advanced advertisers to gain a competitive advantage.
Understanding the potential brand safety risks that a campaign can potentially face before going live, and then balancing those risks with the need to deliver the desired campaign objectives will be for the individual organisations to decide. As an agency committed to tackling the issue of brand safety, we work closely with our clients to ensure that they are aware of the risks of each of the different areas of digital media.
Whilst at Starcom, and across the board at Publicis Media, we want our clients to be aware of the potential risks that digital can offer, it is vitally important that brands are aware of the tools available to mitigate brand safety risks and that they feel comfortable and confident in striking that balance.
Publishers, brands and agencies all have a key role in continuing to evolve this conversation and ensuring advertising continues to meet consumer expectations.