Online advertising woes could force regulation upon adland
The nightmare continues: a fake ad coupled with fake news
Forget fake news, it's fake ads the media industry might want to start worrying about - and if it fails to curb them, alongside other related problems, it could face enforced regulation.
That was the view of the Guardian's chief revenue officer, Hamish Nicklin, who revealed this week that, despite a host of measures to prevent so-called 'bad ads' making it on to the publisher's website, dodgy players were finding sneaky workarounds.
Last month a questionable-looking ad featuring Dragons' Den star Deborah Meaden with a black eye - that, when clicked, actually sold sex toys - appeared alongside the Guardian's premium content, leaving staff - and readers - exasperated as to how it got there.
Nicklin said it took a week to track down the origins of the ad (pictured) and found it came via Google Adwords - slipping through any blocks put in place by Google's advertising service.
The revelation, made during the annual ISBA conference where UK advertisers gather to discuss the biggest issues facing marketing, comes less than a month after The Times revealed how terror and hate organisations were essentially exploiting loopholes in programmatic advertising to make money from unwitting brands.
"I have spent a huge amount of time in the last week chasing down the source of a particular ad for which we had lots and lots of complaints about from our readers - and quite understandably: when you clicked on what looked like [a tabloid-style news story] you went to a website that sold Viagra, sex toys and porn.
"None of that should ever have got through to the Guardian's website... but it's so easy to game the system," he told a room packed with advertisers and senior media execs.
Nicklin said the Google Adwords platform meant "just about anyone who wants to can put an ad out", and these ads can easily be manipulated with changes to the code that will see them pass through most systems - Google's and the Guardian's included.
"Therefore there is a massive responsibility not just on Google, but on all adtech companies to help fix this," he said.
Nicklin, who spent ten years working at Google before joining the Guardian last year, also warned that if these - and other issues such as ad fraud and brand safety - could not be remedied quickly then the industry could face government regulation.
"After the Times articles appeared I called for much more self-regulation [across the entire industry]," Nicklin said.
"The more we see headlines such as 'brands funding terror', the more we will be regulated by the government...so let's get tougher and do more, much more quickly."
Nicklin specifically addressed the room after this comment, claiming most adtech companies were "sitting pretty" and so unlikely to help remedy the issue - but advertisers, agencies and media owners could invoke effective change.
"It has to come from the people with the money to drive change," he said, adding: "I totally believe programmatic has a future, but we need to change how we use the tech."
Google - whose video platform YouTube was found to be another unwitting player in The Times' investigation into brand safety, and whose UK MD was sharing a stage with Nicklin - said it was taking the issues seriously and making investments to overcome the problem.
Ronan Harris, who was promoted to the top role in November 2016 after more than decade with the company, said: "We're actively and quickly pushing for very high standards across the board," he said. "If we don't keep a very high bar in terms of what great advertising and marketing looks and feels like to consumers, then it's going to negatively affect all of us.
"It's not in our interests to have anything that gets through the system that gives people - either a consumer or a brand - a bad experience."
Harris added that Google was pouring "huge" resources into the issue, but added they were not problems that would disappear overnight.
Meanwhile, Richard Huntington, chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, said the creative world could also play a role - by ensuring a robust creative strategy was "glued to the front of programmatic."
Huntington argued this could help banish crap ads and ensure premium publishers were picked by brands because of the context of their advertising environment - rather than by machines blindly chasing targeted audiences around the net.
"That is on creative agencies - and it needs to happen this year," he said.