“Big brands fund terror” splashed the front page of the Times of London on Feb. 9, 2017. Brands were unwittingly having their ads shown against terrorist-made YouTube videos, and the major media outlets jumped in on the investigation. A few weeks later, P&G chose to stop spending on YouTube. That summer at a conference, P&G marketing chief Marc Pritchard said, “We simply will not accept or take the chance that our ads are associated with violence, bigotry or hate,” and announced that P&G would pull ads until the problem was solved.

In April 2018, P&G returned to YouTube — where just the day before its return, CNN reported that 300 advertisers were still funding accounts that had videos of extremism, child abuse and more.

Turns out brand safety isn’t an either-or proposition.

No company really wants their brand associated with beheadings. Overall, brand safety is nothing new. It’s just gotten harder thanks to the rise of digital. Yet the truth of how much a company invests in the topic is much more nuanced, depending on their willingness to forgo cheaper inventory within online advertising.

For AT&T, a strong brand is its most valuable asset, said Fiona Carter, the wireless provider’s chief brand officer. That’s why AT&T stopped buying YouTube ads in late March 2017 and still hasn’t come back.

“Brand safety has and will always be paramount to AT&T. It shapes every single decision we make, from sponsoring content and buying media, to quite simply, where we place our globe,” Carter says, referring to AT&T’s logo. “Digital changed everything, ringing in a new era of murky buying processes and creating the challenge of having clear line of sight on where every ad appears.”

Understanding that “murky” state of media buying is the crux of an agency. Quoting one of his senior global clients, GroupM’s John Montgomery says brands “just want to get what they pay for,” and in the era of digital, clients demand transparency in the supply chain.

Montgomery says he decided on brand safety in his title, rather than choosing something like risk compliance, because it made more sense to clients. But to him, it’s all about mitigating risks.

UM’s Joshua Lowcock, appointed as the agency’s first global brand-safety officer in April 2018, says he’s the “voice of reason” in any room.

“It’s fair and reasonable to expect media efficiency, and every time you talk about efficiency, you have to talk about brand safety,” Lowcock says.

A big change in brand safety is that companies, no matter their tolerance, are hyperaware.

“Any company who is buying at scale knows that it comes with some risk. When that Times [story] came and people said, ‘Oh this is horrible. How did this happen to me?’ No one could say that in 2018. It’s been really well-documented,” says MediaRadar CEO Todd Krizelman.

But there’s only so much an agency can advise against.

“Higher risk means lower cost [of ads], but reputational harm can be transferred to shareholder value and consumers. As the platforms have put more controls in place we can start looking to buy more in the open areas,” Montgomery says.

As much as one side would like to blame another, the onus on securing brand safety falls across brands, agencies, publishers and platforms. Media company Studio71 has been working to tag different content to various levels of safety with a mix of human and machine review.

“In the U.S., not all our inventory is brand-safe, and when we apply PG or G ratings to it, it ends up being a third of our inventory. Clearly, not every brand is looking for that degree of safety around their advertising adjacency,” says Studio71 CEO Reza Izad.

Brand safety doesn’t come cheap. For brands and publishers, it cuts out inventory. On YouTube, brands can elect to only advertise within Google Preferred, where every video undergoes a human review. Instead of just relying on YouTube’s system, JPMorgan Chase has to invest in its own whitelisting.

Over the past two years, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat have instituted stricter community guidelines and created new tools for more control. For example, while YouTube channels previously only had to reach 10,000 total views to be eligible for monetization, they now require 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time.

But as each platform pushes for more video content, brand safety has gotten increasingly more difficult to police. Facebook’s news feed and Twitter’s timeline made it obvious that every piece of content is an individual entity, but ads within videos become more conflated with content. Hence, the deeper investment in technology, and for the case of Facebook and YouTube, a commitment to each hire 10,000 human reviewers.

To convince publishers and platforms to act, brands have repeatedly paused their ad dollars. But UM’s Lowcock says, that’s just a “blunt instrument” and evidently didn’t really affect Facebook’s or Google’s profits.

“The driving force was the reputation. The platforms want to be seen as a force for good. That’s the reason why they act so well and so urgently,” Montgomery says.

Despite working closely with Google on brand safety and despite the company’s changes, AT&T still hasn’t returned its ad dollars there.

“We will refuse to accept the status quo, ensuring the destiny of our brand remains in our hands,” AT&T’s Carter says.

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