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How 2020 is shaping up to be a reformative year for brand safety

26 Aug 2020  |  Simon Redlich 
How 2020 is shaping up to be a reformative year for brand safety

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ABC's CEO Simon Redlich explores how industry approaches to brand safety have been brought into focus by the tumultuous events of 2020, and how the switch to a global perspective will help bring standardisation and greater efficiencies to brands and businesses alike

Some of us will remember when the online ad industry found itself at the centre of a Panorama story in 2007. The programme revealed that ads from some of the UK’s biggest brands had appeared on inappropriate websites, giving the impression advertisers were funding or even endorsing unsavoury content. The issue of brand safety was suddenly mainstream.

Two years previously, working alongside JICWEBS, the ad industry had already started the IASH (Internet Advertising Sales Houses) initiative. This was designed to create the first brand safety assurance programme. Under its auspices, ABC carried out the world’s first round of brand safety audits in 2006 and IASH became a well-known industry programme, helping to reduce ad misplacement.

So much has changed since then. Brand safety is now often mentioned in conjunction with its new partner – brand suitability. The former focuses on strategies and measurements that stop ads appearing next to unsuitable content, whilst the latter concentrates on targeting the environments in which advertisers are happy to place their brands. In effect, being guided by the contexts advertisers do want as well as ones they don’t.

Through difficult times come key learnings

This year, worldwide events like COVID-19 have again brought both brand safety and suitability approaches into sharp focus by highlighting the limitations and detrimental repercussions (for both buyers and sellers) of blanket keyword blocking. If an advertiser decided to add ‘COVID-19’ to their list of blocked words in order to avoid appearing next to news about rising death tolls, for example, they would effectively be blocking most of the premium content news sites (as well as many others) during this time.

The negative impact of the ‘blanket blocking’ approach led Newsworks to develop the #backdontblock campaign on behalf of UK newspaper publishers earlier this year; asking advertisers to support quality journalism, amid fears the industry could lose over £50M as a result of sweeping blocklists.

And, with a recent report from OFCOM revealing that nearly nine out of ten adult internet users turn to traditional media as a source of COVID 19 information, advertisers could be missing out on massive potential audiences too. The clear message is that, with an overly blunt approach, nobody wins.

As Rob Rokowitz, initiative lead for GARM (the Global Alliance for Responsible Media), said in an article for the WFA, “Many agencies have concluded that blanket blocks are not sustainable based on the magnitude of relevant content.” Instead, advertisers are recommended to, “…support authoritative journalism and to work with flexible third-party providers who are capable of managing not just contextual brand safety but also semantics.’

So 2020 has shown that there’s no easy ‘one size fits all’ solution. To gain the sought-after balance of maximum reach coupled with brand safety, there are various challenges in achieving the nuance required when setting up a brand safety plan. This includes taking into account the campaign objectives, the cultural sensitivities of the moment and – as a basic hygiene measure – a clear understanding of the good practice principles all industry partners should be following.

Global alliances and global standards

2020 also brings a significant change for industry standards in online ad trading through the merger between the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) and JICWEBS; leading brand safety and anti-fraud organisations in the US and UK respectively.

In a move welcomed by the industry, their joining forces will bring greater simplicity and consistency to brand safety accreditation. The new TAG programme, called Brand Safety Certification (BSC), replaces the JICWEBS DTSG initiative in the UK. Through BSC, companies can gain efficiencies by ensuring their practices comply with a single set of globally recognised certifications for brand safety.

The merger also enables businesses to expand their certifications globally, demonstrating their brand safety credentials across the world. All through just one set of industry standards and one audit process.

Independent audits

A key feature of TAG’s BSC programme is that companies must demonstrate their compliance by undertaking an external audit, something the UK has championed since 2005. Advertisers increasingly expect to work with suppliers who are independently verified against industry standards.

Indeed, this is one of the WFA’s (World Federation of Advertisers) ‘Eight Principles for Partnership’ as outlined in its Global Media Charter. Mike Zaneis, president and CEO of TAG, explains, “Utilising the validation expertise of organisations like ABC is an integral element that will help us deliver a safer, more transparent online advertising environment.”

Having remained at the forefront of brand safety auditing since its inception, we’ve certainly noticed an increase in the number of companies seeking our independent validation in recent years. The range and scale of the clients we work with, now totalling over 100, shows how important it’s become for key players to reassure their partners about their brand safety practices - helped by industry recognised certification.

Testing for content verification tools

The TAG programme also supports brands worldwide in finding the tools they need to effectively fulfil their brand suitability requirements. This will be through the wider availability of the JICWEBS CV Tool principles, which TAG is now incorporating into its BSC. Since 2011, our unique testing to these principles has supported advertisers and agencies with insights into the capabilities of CV products to block and report ad misplacement.

Global intelligence

Crises accelerate change, and this has certainly been true in many areas this year, brand safety included. At ABC, we’re ready to support businesses to become accredited under TAG’s new programme, whether they want a first audit, are looking to expand to ‘go global’ under the new arrangements, or need to renew a previous audit. The good news is that for those who’ve been audited under the JICWEBS DTSG banner with us before, there should be no great surprises in store. We’ll also continue to contribute to the development of standards and auditing in this area.

2020 has highlighted specific challenges, but if we’re able to harness the lessons and use them as a guide, they can only be beneficial in helping improve the efficacy of brand safety.


Simon Redlich is chief executive at ABC

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