‘They are blatantly blocking news’: Confessions of a programmatic sales lead on brand safety filters’ impact on publishers’ direct-sold ads

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

News publishers have been given the short end of the stick when it comes to the programmatic advertising space for the better part of a decade. And that end only seems to be getting shorter, as verification firms like IAS and DoubleVerify add more tools and filters for media buyers to use in their campaign planning.

According to one programmatic sales lead at a news media company, the newer versions of these brand safety tools and brand suitability filters, like those focused on contextual and sentiment targeting, are layering on top of the already existing legacy filters, like keyword block lists, and the result is that advertisers’ campaigns are not scaling. What’s more, these filters are being applied to direct-sold campaigns, like programmatic guaranteed deals, forcing news publishers to try and comb through all of the data to figure out how to adjust the inconsistencies, redundancies and outdated filters on nearly every deal.

In this edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, the programmatic sales lead talks about how their team is working to fix this issue, one deal at a time.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Media buyers have said that having third-party verification is critical in most campaign deals, and if a publisher’s brand safety or suitability grade from a third party doesn’t pass muster or jive with what the publisher reports itself, they’re willing to move on to the next site. Do you think that there is an issue with media buyers cutting bait too quickly when working with news publishers versus trying to remedy the issue?

I don’t think [media buyers are] meant to be [putting] pressures on us by saying there’s inventory elsewhere. I think it’s more so how the buyers are trained today to execute these premium programmatic or direct campaigns. [This issue] is not just isolated to programmatic; it’s also a part of direct campaigns.

How does this come into play on the direct-sold side of the business?

If an RFP comes through, there will always be an indication of what is and what is not permitted, or what is expected [by the advertiser]. Where there are faults is the carryover from this buyer’s mentality in the open exchange and not recognizing that this premium partnership is not the same as the open exchange. So when you run on the open exchange, it is best practice to overlay pre-bid filters, keyword lists, block lists [and] even in your own creative, have creative blocking tags — there’s probably two more layers I’m forgetting — but these are all important because in the open exchange, if you don’t have a very curated approach to it, you can find yourself in the wild wild west of media buying. 

But what has happened when they go directly to a publisher is … they seem to not take into consideration a publisher’s perspective of what our inventory is [or what] we know of our audience. And in addition to that, we also partner on our side with verification companies to support your needs.

What has happened in the past, at least for me, is I will get a request for a news [private programmatic marketplace]. That news PMP won’t scale and as we go through the progressions of asking and troubleshooting, we identify that there’s the layer of a keyword list in place that is affecting the scale. But in some cases, they are blatantly blocking news as a category filter, which was one of the presets from the IAB. That old, legacy filter, it will prevent anything from your URL from scaling.   

Can you share an example? 

In Covid, everyone applied Covid as a keyword filter on their blocklists across the board, and even campaigns were shut down because buyers were like, ‘Our message is not right for what’s happening right now. But we’ll come back.’

What happened was they came back and you saw a lot of messages around community development [and] support for the community, but the technology on the backend was never updated, even for direct campaigns. So Covid was still being utilized as a keyword block list. And you continue to have this kind of spiral or snowball effect of the keywords compounding.

So it becomes a problem of having too many brand safety tools being layered on top of one another. But if a partner is coming to you directly wanting to advertise on a news site, why would they have a keyword block for “news” activated in the first place? That seems counterintuitive. 

It seems like a dumb question to ask when we are [insert publication’s name here]. [We end up] asking a client, ‘Are you targeting or blocking news or the news category?’ And they basically will say, ‘Yes, we are, that is our best practice.’

You create friction by challenging that and say, ‘Well, you don’t need to do that because we are a trusted news site, unbiased [and] we have a premium, highly engaged audience.’ But the resistance you’re met with is [still], ‘Well, this is our best practice.’

How are you trying to remedy this issue with advertisers? 

So you go through tactics of education and try to showcase to them that this is how we approach it, we can overlay on our side, we can take your keyword lists and review those and see if we can create something that’s similar. But in reality, there’s still this kind of shadow of the scare tactics [from the 2016 election] that are instilled in the minds of these buyers to prevent them from opening it up, even with premium partnerships or premium programmatic.

[The other issue is] that the tools that [buyers] have are not granular enough to support very specific activations within news publishing. The tools that the verification [firms] provide to the buyers are very blunt — the keyword lists, the site lists, the category blocks — these blunt tools aren’t sufficiently giving the buyer what they need to protect the brand, but also are the only thing that they have to rely on at the same time.

Are advertisers and buyers willing to bend their best practices to ultimately get on the same page? 

You start your approach by saying, we understand that we could be a pretty difficult environment to run on, but every ad dollar that you run on our [site] supports our newsroom, and we appreciate that. And that tends to set a tone of recognition that this is something that’s strategic for us. 

But from an agency level, you tend to really get suppressed and then stop. Now, if that happens, sometimes you just lose the business. I’ve lost business with big advertisers that say, ‘You are coming back with a very high score,’ whether it be IBT or brand safety or however that score and methodology is built up. So as a news company, inherently it is affecting us even more so than others. [We] lose the business and they just say, ‘No, we can’t run with you. We have to go elsewhere.’

How has this issue impacted your relationships with third-party verification companies or the ways in which you measure brand safety internally? 

As a news publisher, I might use DoubleVerify [and the media buyer’s agency might use IAS]. How can we make that sync up [or] give us what you tend to apply and we’ll try to do that on our side. Sometimes you’re met with, ‘No, we can’t do that.’

I’m looking at [the] verification company [I partner with] as, do I even need this? The buy-side is going to bring it anyways, so [should I] let them continue to do it rather than us having to pay for something that’s actually not being a tool for us to leverage? Is this becoming more of a cost center? In this economic downturn, money is important. Do I need this type of vendor relationship?

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