The Daily Mirror’s parent company Reach wants to drastically reduce how much ad inventory and revenue is blocked by lengthy keyword blacklists used by agencies to avoid brand-safety scandals but often claims news content as collateral damage.

The newspaper group, formerly known as Trinity Mirror, has partnered with IBM to create a custom tool that leverages IBM Watson’s machine-learning, natural-language processing and visual recognition to check whether content is appropriate for advertising and flag articles that have been blocked. Reach has integrated the tool into its content management system and initial tests have shown that an average 40% of the traffic that was blocked across news, sports, technology and celebrity-related articles, was actually brand-safe, but it wasn’t monetized. Reach had just under 40 million unique visitors in August, according to Comscore.

Blacklists have long been criticized for their bluntness, which is compounded by the fact most brand-safety tools lack the ability to read and interpret context correctly. For instance, the word “shoot” is often used in sports articles to reference when a goal is scored. That means that hundreds of brand-safe articles about footballers “shooting for goals” get blocked. Likewise, after the Manchester bombing in 2017, the name of the city remains on the majority of blacklists. Given Manchester is one of the U.K.’s biggest cities, it gets mentioned a lot, but any page in which it’s included, can’t be monetized currently. Even inventory around the recent “Wagatha Christie” spat between Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy has been blocked on The Mirror because some have contained the word “hack” referring to an Instagram account. This tool, called Mantis, sits on the IBM Cloud and has been designed to detect when the use of a word on a keyword list is blocking an article that’s on a totally different, brand-safe topic, and in doing so unlock valuable inventory.

General-news publishers have hemorrhaged ad revenue as a result of lengthy keyword blacklists blocking targetable inventory for years. But the issue has spread to be just as problematic for sports publishers, as well as fashion, beauty, lifestyle and entertainment sites, according to Terry Hornsby, digital solutions director at Reach.

“Ultimately, we want to move away from keywords [blacklists] entirely,” said Hornsby. “But we get that not everyone will trust Mantis overnight. We want to prove the concept to the market.”

Some campaigns can be more affected than others, depending on the objectives and the keyword lists used. An executive at a national news publisher said that between 10% and 30% of ad revenue can be lost from a single campaign, but added in some cases that can be much higher.

For others, it’s even more extreme. An executive at a different publisher said that as much as 90% of a single campaign’s impressions can be blocked. “Some campaigns can flatline at close to zero, or insignificant delivery, depending on the keywords and tech used,” said the publishing executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That translates directly to revenue.”

Others have said that lists block as much as 65% of their entire programmatic ad inventory. While some clients have lists that have more than 2,000 words blocked for a single campaign, according to publisher sources.

“We often get told that parts of our content are being flagged for inappropriate content but then there are no further insights into which parts of our sites or what for, which makes it impossible to troubleshoot and identify the problem,” said a publisher from a magazine brand.

The general consensus among publishers is that there are huge volumes of incorrect keyword matching occurring.  That often means a scramble to deliver on an ad partner’s campaign objective in other ways and shift around available impressions. Some publishers have to change targeting away from relevant articles and content types mid-campaign because all the relevant pages have been blocked.

“Clients are more than ever focused on brand safety, and the [agency] solution is to crank what technology exists to the highest possible brand safety level and trust that it’s working as it should,” said an executive at a media group.

Of the six publishers spoken to for this article, all said it is hard to even quantify an exact amount of revenue they’re missing out on. “We can’t see the impacts of all brand safety blocking on activity in our exchanges, even with log file access. Only buyers would have that visibility,” said the same executive.

The issue affects direct-sold, insertion-order based inventory, as well as campaigns that are bought and sold programmatically. Industry-wide, publishers are likely losing hundreds of thousands in revenue in the U.K. alone, according to media sources.

Hornby is confident the use of the Mantis tool will open up a significant amount of unlocked inventory, therefore increasing bidding for inventory in online auctions, which will, in turn, drive up programmatic ad yields.

Reach plans to license the tool to other publishers — on a pay-as-you-go model — providing reporting and services as requested. It doesn’t plan to drive major profits from licensing doing so, according to Hornsby. “The unlocked inventory is what will provide the meaningful revenue,” he added. For the partnership, IBM provided the technology but it won’t take a cut of any revenue made from licensing or advertising, according to Hornsby. He will kick off an agency roadshow to help the buy-side understand the potential for the platform.

Both publishers and agencies spoken to for this article are interested in the tool. While some agencies are open to evolving keyword blacklist strategies to center more on semantic and machine-learning-based tech, there will need to be hard proof it’s a better approach than keyword blacklists.

For agencies, often the biggest hurdles in using custom publisher tools revolve around lack of scale. For Mantis to get traction among agencies, a lot of publishers would need to adopt it so that agencies needn’t split their brand-safety strategies for different media plans, according to Matt McIntyre, head of programmatic for EMEA at Essence.

“We’re big supporters of machine learning helping make smarter decisions at scale, but it would be easier if solutions like this [Mantis] are available to advertisers who can then apply them across all campaigns regardless of integration to specific publishers,” said McIntyre.

The majority of agencies acknowledge that keyword blacklists are a crude way to avoid brand safety issues, but it works. “In principle, the tool sounds effective and impressive, unlocking more inventory effectively lowers the auction intensity and resultant CPM, which provides greater reach at a more effective cost,” said Paul Kasamias, managing partner, Starcom. “This then becomes a question of risk management in relation to brand reputation. How much additional premium inventory can be truly unlocked and what’s its incremental reach and cost-effectiveness. If the answer isn’t significant, then the conversation becomes somewhat less appealing.”

Update: An earlier version of this article omitted that Trinity Mirror was the former name for the Reach group. 

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