The Independent’s Blair Tapper & Thomson Reuters’ Josef Najm are trying to break down advertisers’ news blocks 

Subscribe: Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify

Advertisers’ aversion to the news seems to be a neverending issue for news publishers. Tales of advertisers’ overly broad keyword blocks continue to pop up, as they did during a live recording of the Digiday Podcast at the September 2023 Digiday Publishing Summit.

“Another one we just saw was around the U.S. Open, actually, when Coco [Gauff] won and we had advertisers blocking [articles containing the word] ‘shot.’ But it’s a tennis shot, not a bullet shot,” said Blair Tapper svp for the U.S. at The Independent.

Joining Tapper on stage was Josef Najm, director of programmatic and partnerships at Thomson Reuters, who shared a similar story. Climate change-related catastrophes have dominated recent news cycles, and advertisers have created new brand-safety segments to block their ads from running against news publishers’ climate change coverage.

“It’s kind of the inverse of how advertisers are also talking about sustainability and their efforts with it. So there’s almost a little bit of hypocrisy that’s taking place there, where they’re trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re supporting something, but at the same time, we don’t want to be surrounded around the news that’s really affecting them,’” said Najm.

This issue is likely to become a bigger problem over the next year ahead of the U.S. presidential election. To get ahead of it, Tapper and Najm are trying to have more conversations with advertisers and agencies about their brand-safety efforts, such as ensuring that their keyword blocklists are updated and that ad buyers are acknowledging the nuances between news cycles and brand safety concerns.

“To sort of go back to just saying, ‘Block all this, block all that’ — it’s really sort of rudimentary when so much else has evolved so quickly, and there’s been so much more development, and it seems like this bit has stalled,” said Tapper.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

The origin of the brand-safety issue

Najm: This really began for me as an issue when I was on the buy side in 2016 when the election was picking up between Trump and Hillary [Clinton] and we saw advertisers concerned with running content on Next thing you know, you saw DoubleVerify is springing up with their brand safety solutions. And since then, basic keywords like “Trump” or “politics,” whatever it might be, has continued to perpetuate.

The CPM impact of unblocking high-traffic coverage

Tapper: You have to have those conversations and say, “Hey, we know this event was important to you. Are you willing to open up that keyword targeting?” Because the reality is, if [U.S. Open coverage] is [labeled] safe, we can see anywhere between three to five times [higher] CPM, but it’s also much more valuable for an advertiser.

The importance of updated keywords blocklists

Najm: It seems to be a cycle where brands will move to block things, because they need to [recalibrate] the message of how they’re going to go to market. In the case of COVID, you saw brands hit pause and say, “Ok, we want to go back to the market with community message.” They never went back to the blocks they were putting in place to say, “Now that we have this community message, how do we get it to places where people are looking for information and facts and get it back?” So those messages were going to places that weren’t necessarily new sites.

The problem with layering too many brand safety blocks

Tapper: If a client is appending 18 blocking tags and we’re applying 18 brand safety filters, there’s gonna just be one impression. That one impression is probably not enough to justify a partnership. But if you can say these are cross-cutting and X isn’t really Y and this is apples and this is oranges, it actually opens up the pipes for an actual collaboration that’s meaningful.

More in Media

Teads’ M&A rumors are firming up with a deal to merge with Outbrain

The latest installment of ad tech M&A activity is leaving some industry folks surprised.

Publishers’ Privacy Sandbox pauses settle into a deep freeze following reports of poor performance

Publishers aren’t ready to press play yet on dedicated Privacy Sandbox tests.