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New research: A third of UK brands appear next to explicit content or fund crime online

New research commissioned by Project Sunblock shows that more than a third of UK brands have no insight into where their display advertising is appearing online. A further more worrying statistic for the online advertising industry is that nearly half of senior marketers in the UK believe that online advertising is not transparent enough.

To tell us more about the outcomes of Project Sunblock research and discuss the challenges facing the online advertising industry is Duncan Trigg, CEO of Project Sunblock.

There are significant dangers, not to mention costs to brands who wake up to find their brand sitting next to something wholly inappropriate. In this podcast we outline, the scale of the problems, the implications for brands and what the online advertising industry needs to do to adddress them.

Duncan gives his view based on Project Sunblock research on how the online advertising industry can get through the current growing pains to offer marketers a safe, regulated and transparent solution. This all comes of course on the back of the recent announcement that Google and Microsoft agreed measures to block explicit content online.

Considering using online advertising for your brand? Nervous about where your campaign might show up online? Duncan Trigg, CEO of Project Sunblock talks you through the things to watch out for.

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Duncan welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

No trouble - nice to speak to you.

So you’ve just released one of your most recent surveys, about the fact that a third of brands have no idea where their online advertising is appearing, so we’ll talk about some of the findings from that research.

Start us off by introducing us to project Sunblock.

Project Sunblock is a content verification tool we’ve come about as a result the evolution of the way the market place has evolved.

My background is that I was one of the founders of one of the largest networks in the country, and what’s happened over the last decade with the evolution of technology is that from a marketer’s perspective, the ability to buy sites and indicative audience has progressed massively. So advertisers are now effectively buying audiences but have lost complete clarity and sight on where their advertising is actually running.

What we do is we work with networks, with advertisers and with agencies to monitor where advertising and the final destination is, and whether you’re actually being called and where it actually lands.

It provides the clarity back to the advertiser to see if they get what they actually paid for, and is the content of the advertising appearing against appropriate?

In addition to that we also offer a viewability solution which looks at whether the advert was actually shown or not.

So we’ve effectively allowed the pendulum to swing back so that the advertiser has more control and all the benefits of the behavioral targeting aspects of the digital marketing but understanding where their advertising is actually running.

So what are the dangers to brands of not knowing where their advertising might end up?

Well it is the obvious danger of highly inappropriate content and we work very closely with the City of London Police so we blacklist the sites that we are given that are deemed blacker than black if you like - the highly illegal peer sites, and there’s also pornography - or at the other end of the scale there’s content that would be appropriate to brands that would be inappropriate to other brands for example P&O advertising a cruise in a paper against a latest disaster for a ferry, whereas a normal brand would be happy to appear there.

So we operate across the full spectrum and the parameters that are set for the campaigns are led by the advertisers or the agencies themselves.

So talk us through the sort of scale of the problem. How many of the UK advertisers have no idea where their actual advertising content is appearing?

It’s a difficult one to answer because some people will assume they know an awful lot more, but what’s for certain is that pretty much all of our clients are surprised by the level of inappropriate advertising they are actually receiving when they view the data.

So I would say that even the most efficient advertising-purchasing vehicle that’s just going through brand sites for example will appear a healthy percentage of the inventory will be what is deemed inappropriate for that brand.

It varies whether you are talking about the highly illegal and damaging of the brand or the stuff that is just potentially not appropriate for the brand but it is pretty universal and it is a much much larger problem than the market realises.

Presumably as well as these inappropriate placements of advertising damage of the brand they are also costing the advertisers a lot of money also?

Well the damage to the brand is a difficult one to quantify: how do you cost out the actual damage to the brand as a negative PR piece?

You know a few years ago there was even a Panorama programme in 2007, at the start of this whole process when it started to happen the big Telco’s were started appearing in happy slapping sites and pornography so the actual quantifiable damage to the brand is more difficult to quantify.

But it’s the actual wasted inventory [that’s a problem], because if you are buying something you should get what you pay for. If you are looking at it in a percentage of the budget, if you’re buying a billion impressions and 10 per cent of them are inappropriate, then that’s an awful lot of wasted inventory.

Is this part of the growing pains of a constantly growing online advertising industry that’s almost trying to keep up with itself?

I think it’s very fair to say so - I think first of all from all the conversations we have in the market place, no one we have spoken to is doing this willingly. No one is apathetic about it.

It’s perceived as a problem they want to address, but the danger of course is that the web has always been based around performance. It’s a victim of its own success really, in how trackable and tangible what you do is.

But all the technology that’s developed over the last 10 years has been about enhancing performance, and as I’ve said, the net result of all of that is that whilst you will follow a user around based on their behavior, you lose sight of ultimately you could be running across hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of websites to follow that user across a campaign.

So to answer your question, I think yes. I think it is a problem that the industry has created in their pursuit of performance but it is not something that the industry is unwilling to address or is apathetic about. It’s something that is very topical at the moment.

It is an important point to stress because this could potentially damage the industry if advertisers start to feel that their campaigns and the way that they are run and their ad placements aren’t transparent. Is that how advertisers are feeling?

Yes, absolutely. There is certainly a lack in terms of how the campaigns are run. The industry knows a lot about the type of users of this type of thing, but around the environment within which the advertising finally appears, transparency is certainly lacking.

What do you think the industry should do to address that going forward?

The issue with the industry as I said is not an issue that they do not to address there are now tools such as Sunblock and other CB tools in place that you can use to reduce the risk of your advertising appearing.

No product is 100 per cent safe because the other side of this of course is because of the evolution of the real time bidding and programmatic environments there is an awful lot of inventory that is put in there that is highly illegal and masked, or claiming to be what it is not, or it’s just inappropriate to the brand.

So if you are a CEO of a large advertiser and a screenshot appears on your desk of advertising such as an illegal peer to peer or porn site and you are a broadband provider, and there you are advertising high speed broadband - not only to the user are you ligitimising that site, but you’re also providing a revenue stream which creates a greater demand. It’s a vicious cycle, so more and more imagery finds itself in these environments.

So if there was a tool and there are tools now that you can use to reduce the risk of this happening, it should be used and it is being used, the challenge of course is the data that it actually generates is problematic because it is rocking the status quo.

Of course you mentioned programmatic advertising, something that a lot of people are still trying to get to grips with, and the industry is still feeling and finding its way around that kind of method of distributing advertising. And of course a lot of that involves selling on inventory that has not found gaps elsewhere and moving it on to another advertiser and there should be some warnings around that for both the advertisers themselves and the agencies that deliver that, to make sure this content is not being shifted from where they hope their brand will appear to being sold on as unused inventory to appear somewhere else?

This is it - if you’re buying magazines, there’s a finite number of places the magazine can run, but of course the web is almost infinite in terms of its supply. If you are a brand that’s willing to and are looking for the highest possible performance from your advertising budget, and you’re embracing the technology that allows you to find users around then of course you are going to find yourself environments that are inappropriate.

It isn’t a problem purely of programmatic. It’s worth stating as well that this started probably 5, 6, 7 years ago when a lot of inventory started to be arbitraged between networks for example, so if you were responsible for a large amount of inventory and you sold a certain percentage of it, you want to monetise the rest of it. The number of buying points that an advertising placement can actually go through before it lands on the final destination that you were asking for - you have a much bigger issue I think than the market cares to address.

Of course this comes in the same week that Google and Microsoft agreed measures to make it harder for abusive images to appear online. Do you think that generally even outside the advertising industry in the last year or so the Internet and the online world have started to look at itself and say we need to address some of these problems?

Absolutely. This is not a willful evolution of the market place at all, and everybody we speak to is more than keen to address the issue, but [the problem] is just the plethora of inventory that’s out there.

Plus of course there is the fraud element to it, and the illegal sites that are sticking inventory in there - and then there’s the remnant inventory that’s left in there from sites generating hundreds and millions of page impressions. And with the best will in the world, if you’re a large site and you’re generating let’s say several billion page impressions, the chances of selling all that at brand level are negligible, particularly with the market moving to performance-based marketing.

So it’s a problem that’s been generated by technology, by the sheer volume of inventory and opportunities that are out there.

If you go back to 2006/2007, there was a definitive move within the agency marketplace to start to rationalise the number of buying points they were buying off.

You would work with people with large reach with the ability to satisfy briefs for a particular criteria rather than deal with 250 different publishers from different environments to buy your campaign and the inefficiencies in terms of the ROI for the different departments within the agencies, and then consolidation had to happen, and the result of the consolidation is that there are huge numbers now of buying points that have supplies from all over the place.

Not necessarily direct relationships with publishers themselves or portals. The market place is very involved, and they go directly to the sites they’re interested in, and it’s an impossible market for the environment to buy directly from every single supply point that they wanted to get into any given campaign.

Well Duncan, you can help people through project Sunblock and help advertisers to get round some of these problems.

For more information you can see the links on the description part of this podcast page but to round it up, Duncan, if you were talking to someone who is a big brand who’s hoping to get into online advertising, but who are worried about some of these problems we’ve been chatting about - what are the three steps that you would advise them to take to make sure that their online advertising is efficient and is not going to harm their brand?

Well clearly the first point of call is to obviously use a tool that is going to help, and it’s worth noting that that’s both whether the advertising is in the right environment and whether it is actually being seen.

If you are looking at a return on your investment, as if you are buying a billion impressions and only three or four hundred million are appearing in the right places you really want then it is clearly an ROI point to go back to your suppliers and only pay for the appropriate placements.

I think that the second point is to address and understand that, with the best will in the world, technology evolves all the time, and having the best of breed of technology that can help you with protecting your brand is always something that should be considered.

The price point is so minimal compared to the return on investment the product actually generates by increasing the efficiencies on your buy, that who’s going to pay for it and where it fits into the buying chain is taken care of when you actually look at the numbers.

I think lastly is just to be aware of the fact that the industry is doing everything it can to address this and it is by no means when advertising appears your advert will inevitably appear in the wrong environment at some stage, but the whole idea is to try and limit that as far as you humanly possibly can.