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Brand safety concerns mount as X (formerly Twitter) pulls out of MRC audit

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Marketers will have to keep (blindly) trusting X, formerly Twitter, when it says it’s a safe place for advertising. Unfortunately, they can’t verify those claims independently.

The platform recently opted out of independent auditing by Ernst & Young for its Media Rating Council (MRC) brand safety credentials. X cited existing resource constraints and ongoing technological challenges as the reasons it could not continue with the formal audit right now, though the company is open to revisiting it down the line, an MRC spokesperson told Digiday.

X hadn’t engaged in the formal audit process for content level brand safety after its pre-assessment process, which was completed and reviewed in early 2023. As a result, “The MRC intends to remove X from an in-process status and will note this change as part of our periodic status update disclosures. X will not be considered in-process until the company formally re-engages in an MRC audit,” the spokesperson said.

Perhaps, if X’s ads business was faring better, it might have been more enthusiastic about undergoing an audit. When an ads business is booming, it’s easier to justify investing time and money to secure that kind of accreditation. Because obtaining accreditation should pay off since it’s a prerequisite for many marketers before they invest significant sums into a platform.

“I interpret ‘resource constraints’ to mean that X doesn’t have the money to pursue brand safety certification because audits are expensive,” said Nandini Jammi, co-founder of nonprofit adtech watchdog Check My Ads. “Seems like a real problem for them because advertisers don’t want to run on a platform that is brand unsafe.”

This marks a notable shift from the platform’s MRC views just two months ago. Back then, X’s MRC accreditation had been delayed, but discussions for the formal audit to happen were taking place between the nonprofit and the platform. But somewhere in the following weeks things changed. It’s still unclear whether X has a full brand safety team in place.

As per LinkedIn, Elyana Thierry, based in Los Angeles, was the last “global head of brand safety” for X and had held the role since June 2023. However, by September, Thierry updated her profile to indicate a move to Spotify as its brand safety marketing manager. California-based JJ Atherton appears to have joined the team last month from YouTube, according to his LinkedIn profile, as “senior program manager, brand safety”, but the move hasn’t been formally, publicly announced by the company.

Situations like this could potentially disrupt a platform’s efforts to secure brand safety credentials, especially for a one as unpredictable as X. In fact, it’s exactly the sort of departure that might make it more difficult for the platform to manage and oversee the audit internally.

Despite X’s decision to put the audit on the back burner, it still says on its site that it is “fully committed to the MRC brand safety audit and are actively working with MRC and EY to align on audit scope and proceed with urgency.”

As ever with X under Musk’s management, there’s a discrepancy between what it claims and what it actually does.

Just last month, the company boasted about the progress of its brand safety tools over the past year in a blog post, and its partnerships with industry leaders such as Integral Ad Science for third-party measurement.

However, those achievements seem distant following the events of last week.

On Wednesday, X owner Elon Musk appeared to endorse one user’s antisemitic comments, by responding: “You have said the actual truth” — an interaction which subsequently went viral. By Thursday, media watchdog group Media Matters released its report which stated ads for the likes of Apple, Bravo, IBM and Oracle were running next to pro-Hitler and Holocaust denial posts. As a result of the report, brands including IBM, Apple, Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery and Lionsgate suspended advertising on the platform. And it’s not just brands who are taking a stand once again. CNN also confirmed that it had paused advertiser pre-roll campaigns (Amplify) on its videos featured on X.

This sequence of events was too much for even those advertisers who had continued buying from X despite its turbulent state since Musk’s takeover. Apple, CNN, Disney, IBM being among them.

But despite the pushback from these advertisers, X’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, firmly stands by the platform’s safety for advertising brands. She’s also reiterated the company’s commitment to fortifying those safeguards to ensure brands feel secure in their association with X.

Here is a snippet of what she said on the matter to  X staff on Monday, according to a company spokesperson who shared the full email with Digiday: “While some advertisers may have temporarily paused investments because of a misleading and manipulated article, the data will tell the real story. Because for all of us who work at X, we’ve been extremely clear about our efforts to combat antisemitism and discrimination, as there’s no place for it anywhere in the world.”

Yet, the hesitancy among advertisers to spend on X paints a different picture. 

“No serious management team of a major advertiser would condone their head of advertising putting their brand at great risk by endorsing the behaviors of the platform’s current owner with their advertising investment,” said Lou Paskalis, CEO and founder of AJL Advisory. “Unlike when it was called Twitter, the platform no longer offers advertisers anything that they can’t find elsewhere in today’s advertising marketplace.”

The numbers back this up. 

Insider Intelligence’s latest forecasts show that X’s worldwide ad revenue is expected to plummet 54.5% by the end of the year to $1.89 billion, down from $4.14 billion at the end of 2022. By 2024, the platform is expected to see a further 4.3% reduction in worldwide ad spend, to $1.81 billion.

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