Why the 4As’ brand safety consortium falls short

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Advertisers are acutely aware of the growing importance of brand safety in the digital age, working to formulate an industrywide response that effectively combats the kinds of high-profile breaches that have vexed brands large and small in recent years.

In case there was any doubt about the stakes of the brand safety war, though, Unilever Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed was unequivocal in his February speech before the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting.

“With no trust, there’s no data, and with no data, there’s no brand and no company. … A brand without trust is just a product,” Weed said in the speech, declaring that ad platforms must make “a positive contribution to society.”

Amid mounting concerns about brand safety breaches, the 4As announced in April the launch of the Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB), an industry consortium to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing surrounding brand safety violations and how to combat them.

With more than two-thirds of marketers reporting in a recent survey that their brands had encountered brand safety issues, the APB’s mission is both necessary and laudable. But while the consortium’s indicates that the advertising industry is serious about the threat posed by brand safety violations, it falls short of what the industry must do to mitigate the threat. To play the most constructive role possible, the consortium should go even further in establishing a minimum set of technological standards and procedures for industrywide implementation.

To be sure, there is much to recommend the APB. The consortium has instituted long-overdue procedures that reflect the seriousness of the brand safety crisis. Under the new standards, each agency is required to appoint a brand safety officer who will lead coordination efforts with the APB. The consortium stipulates that if an IPG brand safety officer notices an ad by a Publicis client appear after inappropriate content on YouTube, the IPG officer must promptly flag the issue to Publicis. Once the APB flags a problematic website or platform, agency-client teams are tasked with investigating the issue. Moving forward, the APB plans to create a scale for categorising risks and to establish a set of standards that will align baseline expectations of safety together with the Media Rating Council, creating an industry guide.

These measures highlight the growing recognition that brand safety violations hurt the entire ad industry – not only the individual agencies and clients who fall victim to breaches. Any brand safety violation undermines trust in the industry, and failure to combat offenses leaves the industry vulnerable to further violations. There is a shared interest, then, in rooting out brand safety threats. But achieving that goal will not be possible with half-measures or insufficient vigilance.

To gain the upper hand in the brand safety war, the 4As should create a much more proactive industry standard for responding to the crisis. Defining brand safety, monitoring violations, and attempting to decrease exposure to risk are all vital steps -- but defensive measures alone are not enough. Wars are not won in a defensive crouch, and that holds no less true of the brand safety war. If agencies are to wage a successful offensive against threats to brands’ reputations, they must adopt a full-spectrum approach in which they employ the most advanced tools and technologies to proactively protect their clients from violations.

 The digital and programmatic era 

Thanks to the availability of a wide array of technological solutions that can significantly reduce and even eliminate brand safety violations, advertisers have at their disposal the means to pre-empt breaches and offer their clients the robust protections they deserve. Most notably, researchers have made great strides in semantic technologies and natural language processing, which rank among the most effective tools for monitoring content and thwarting damaging brand safety encroachments.

Moreover, audio, image, and video recognition engines can identify, flag, and filter out problematic multimedia content. These technologies, driven by artificial intelligence, have shown remarkable sophistication in their ability to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate content, underscoring their strong utility for brand safety applications.  In analysing video content, the latest deep learning technologies have shown an ability to distinguish between explicit sex and suggestive images, a bikini and lingerie, orange juice and a martini, and holding a pen and holding a cigarette. Brands who employ these technologies are able to define the parameters of acceptable content, benefiting from the tools’ cutting-edge capabilities to ensure that their brands steer far clear of any content the company deems unacceptable.

The digital and programmatic era has given rise to the brand safety threat, but brand safety violations need not be inevitable facts of life in our digital world. But holding off threats will require an industrywide commitment to utilising all capabilities possible to safeguard brands’ content.  Of course, a growing number of agencies will adopt the latest technological solutions of their own accord -- but using state-of-the-art technology to protect clients should not merely be a nice bonus. It should be expected -- and with clients growing increasingly impatient about persistent violations, it’s essential to the ad industry’s ability to maintain trust and credibility with brands.

It’s high time that the advertising industry heeded Weed’s warning. Much as TAG’s Certified Against Fraud Program has met with notable success – driving down ad fraud levels by 83 per cent compared to the industry average, according to a recent study – a stringent brand safety standard will emphasize proactivity, pre-emption, and positive results, protecting brands from incidents that threaten their public trust and image.

We may never reach 100 per cent brand-safe environments outside of walled gardens, but we can aspire to come as close as possible to that target. The APB consortium marks important progress toward that goal -- but given that even greater progress is possible, the industry must make clear its willingness to leverage the full suite of available tools to shield clients from reputational harm.  It is therefore incumbent upon the APB to grow even more bullish on brand safety and to implement guidelines for integrating the advanced technological solutions necessary to make even further strides -- before it’s too late.

Gil Becker, President and CEO, AnyClip
Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible