5 minutes

Managing Brand Safety at Scale: How to Increase Brand Relevance and Drive Down Costs

Tim Burke, CEO of Affinio, the interest analytics platform, examines how ad-tech will help brands achieve better safety controls in 2018

In a politically-charged day and age, brands across every industry are placing a closer eye on their ad placements and the allocation of coveted media dollars. The issue of “brand safety” has become top of mind for almost every CMO and media executive, and rightfully so. According to a study conducted by the CMO Council in late 2017, 67% of marketers stated that the negative context from content surrounding digital ads had damaged perceptions of their brand qualities and values.

The truth is, brands have lost control of their targeting and media placements, and like we saw in 2017, were thrust into an unwanted spotlight when their ads were shown running against extremist content or inappropriate websites. From slashing ad budgets to removing content from some of advertising’s biggest players like YouTube and Facebook, global brands are leading the charge and responsible for billions in lost media dollars. The Drum estimates that $10 billion worth of media business is already under review in 2018 as more advertisers are challenging agency brand safety measures.

However, even with an intense focus being placed on brand safety in 2018, brand advertisers, media agencies, and publishers are hardly out of the woods or have a scalable, proven solution for managing brand safety.

Whitelisting won’t regain control

As stated by Keith Weed, the CMO of Unilever, “not every web page should deliver your message.” Brands want to maximize reaching their target audience, without having their ads placed alongside content that could potentially harm their reputation. Yet, in a media environment filled with a lack of transparency, identifying what’s safe for a brand while still reaching large-scale audiences is more challenging than ever before.

In an attempt to manage brand safety and prevent an ad placement faux pas, global brands across almost every industry have taken to whitelisting. Unfortunately, while whitelisting efforts work, they are introducing new problems for the brand, namely: relevance, scale and cost.

Brands have begun employing humans to manually scour the internet to pre-select the sites to enlist in their “safe” ad network. In 2017, J.P. Morgan Chase cut the number of websites they display ads on from 400,000 a month to 5,000 pre-approved “human-checked” sites. This dramatic cut-back occurred after the appearance of their ads on a Hillary Clinton hate-site. However, as you can imagine, this method is not only expensive and timely but simply not scalable.

As brands whitelist the major “safe” publishers, they are also driving up the cost of premium inventory because they are competing with other brands whitelisting the same publishers. When this happens, it will only be the brands with the biggest advertising budgets that secure premium placements. The caveat of course if that their ads will need to be less personalized and less targeted. As marketers, we know that unless an ad is highly-targeted and speaks to the interests and passions of consumers, consumers will simply ignore it.

As shared by Jared Belsky, the president of 360i, in AdAge, this model will mean: “The big guys gobble up inventory and arbitrage it all over the place, re­creating the ad networks of the past, which we are running from.”

In addition, due to sheer volume, brands can only manually check a small subset of publishers and thus are missing the cost-effectiveness of smaller, niche publishers. When this happens, they miss the opportunity to create highly-relevant content that will resonate with the audiences that visit these smaller publishers.

Achieving brand safety and relevancy

When it comes to whitelisting, it’s not only a matter of figuring out which websites are brand-safe but also which are still relevant to the brand. To achieve significant reach, brands need to find a scalable way to identify the millions of niche publisher sites where their target persona “lives.”

So what does the future of brand safety look like?

First and foremost, brand safety must be owned by the brand. Among the “players” including media agencies and the publishers themselves, the brand has the most to lose when brand safety isn’t managed properly. It has to be managed in-house, and for many global brands, it is fitting to belong in the hands of their research and insights teams. These teams have the best understanding of their target audience interest and behaviors, making them best suited to help guide brand safety strategies. Safety strategies that must be passed to partnered media agencies and key publishers.

With the emergence of machine learning and AI capabilities, manually curating brand whitelists simply doesn’t make sense. Instead of “human-checking” every single website, brands should be leveraging new and advanced technologies that can help guide their brand safety strategies for every global region and persona they are focused on.


A machine-generated list of safe domains by Affinio

By applying technology to analyze web traffic patterns and shared social content, and analyzing that content automatically, brands can understand not only the content and topics across vast publisher websites, but they can also identify the audience(s) each publisher is attracting.

Using this logic, brands can regain control of their messaging by understanding what resonates with their target, while quickly identifying low-cost, high-quality “safe” sites to spread their message. It is this type of machine learning technology will transform how brands manage brand safety now, and into the future.

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