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The first ever accredited seals to help promote brand safety online in the UK were recently introduced by JICWEBS.

These seals are awarded to ad serving companies successfully audited by a third party to meet industry-agreed standards to prevent ads being served next to inappropriate or illegal content online.

So how did this all actually come about and what are the pros and cons for the various parties involved in digital advertising?

Why it came about

As online ad buying continues to shift towards automated technologies, such as real-time bidding, the risk of accidentally placing an ad next to content that could negatively impact a brand will continue to exist.

We’re not talking about sites that simply won’t effectively drive conversions for a campaign, but rather sites that contain inappropriate content that will actually damage an advertiser’s reputation. 

Inappropriate sites might include pornographic material, illegal content – such as piracy and file-sharing – or content promoting topics such as violence or hate speech.

For example, Nationwide building society pulled its advertising from Facebook after its ads appeared on pages featuring violence against women and sexist content.

How the industry attempted to tackle it

Representatives from across the digital advertising ecosystem, including the buy- and sell-side – advertisers, agencies, publishers, trading desks, demand and supply side platforms, exchanges and networks – got together to form the Digital Trading Standards Group (DTSG).

The DTSG's goal is to promote brand safety and minimise the risk of online display ads being misplaced next to inappropriate content.

To achieve this, the DTSG published a set of Good Practice Principles which specifies six ways the industry can help minimise ad misplacement and improve industry transparency.

The seal

One of the six principles mandates that a company serving online advertising undergoes independent auditing by a third party, such as ABC, to prove that its advertising misplacement policies and processes meet certain criteria.

The seal is awarded by the UK's Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards (JICWEBS) – the independent media body that defines best practice standards for online ad trading – and is the proof of a company’s compliance. 

Its appearance aims to provide peace of mind and reassurance to an advertiser that their trafficking partners can be trusted to display their online ads safely – much like the famous British Standards Institution (BSI) Kitemark which is a sign to consumers that vital safety and performance requirements have been met on various products and services.

What are the pros?

The seal initiative will benefit advertisers which will thereby benefit any entities that trade in digital media. Brands can feel confident when buying through JICWEBS/DTSG certified partners because they offer increased transparency into their buying methods and the steps that have been taken to minimise ad misplacement.

In theory, this should result in higher demand for companies who have taken the time and money to be audited by an accredited third party.

In other words, this will hopefully result in more business for the companies that are honest about how they acquire their ad inventory.

This initiative could also result in a reduction of robotic (i.e. fraudulent) traffic across our industry, which currently makes up somewhere between 30-50% of all online traffic.

Since the JICWEBS/DTSG seal initiative gives advertisers a transparent look into how their trafficking partners are buying their ad inventory, deciding to only buy through JICWEBS/DTSG certified partners will help mitigate the risk of working with the shady sources that are typically the ones buying fake inventory.

Ultimately, shady partners will be faced with two options: 

  1. Continue to buy fraudulent impressions but risk market share by not seeking certification or 
  2. Stop buying robotic traffic to obtain certification and reap the rewards of higher demand.

Either way the result will be the same: less fraudulent impressions in the market place.

It could also help with the fight against piracy. Sites containing pirated movies and TV programmes are being supported, inadvertently, by advertising revenue from big marketers.

For example, a recent Wall Street Journal investigation into some popular piracy sites uncovered ads for major brands including Toyota, Honda, Kraft, and Target appearing alongside illegal streams of popular TV shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men.”

Copyright infringement sites are typically considered unsafe brand environments given the illegal nature of their ‘services’ offered.

The seal should mean that less of these sites appear on ad schedules which will result in less money flowing into them. If they can’t make money they won’t exist.

What are the cons?

It’s not particularly cheap to get the certification seal. As well as the considerable staff hours required to achieve it, the auditing and member fees costs thousands of pounds.

The possible bad news for advertisers is that we could see ad rates rise on the networks that have been proactive in achieving safety. If advertisers start to shift their budgets toward JICWEBS/DTSG certified partners, we can infer that the supply of quality (DTSG) inventory will decline, which should increase demand and the rates along with it.

This could force advertisers to continue advertising with shady partners or result in their budget not going quite as far as it used to. Ultimately, advertisers will need to decide how they want to work with partners who are dedicated to safety and with those who are not.

It will certainly be seen as bad news for companies that acquire inventory in shady ways. They stand to lose out big if they are unwilling to clean up their inventory and offer transparency into their buying practices.

We could also see a backlash from trafficking sources that don’t wish to participate in open transparency programs like the DTSG. 

A trafficking source that genuinely feels their network is clean and safe may wonder why they should be forced into certification, and the associated cost, just to be considered for a media buy.

Some tend to be very protective about their inventory sources mainly because it can represent a large piece of their competitive edge. In fact, a number of networks deliberately don’t share their sites lists in case the agency’s trading desk goes straight to the exchanges to buy the same inventory much cheaper.

There’s also always the question of what happens if the DTSG itself is disbanded, like its predecessor the Internet Advertising Sales House? IASH was originally created in 2006 with similar goals but its Code of Conduct wasn’t flexible enough to allow for the rapid evolution of new trading models and technologies.

Consequently, trading that took place around IASH accredited businesses eventually began to undermine the system. IASH, the Code of Conduct and its trading seal was, therefore, disbanded in favour of creating a new system for all ad trading business models.

If this happens again, then what? This uncertainty could potentially hold a number of trafficking partners back from the JICWEBS/DTSG certification process. Only time will tell if the wide scale adoption of this initiative will take place.

Craig Simmons

Published 21 May, 2014 by Craig Simmons

Craig Simmons is Product Strategy and Operations Manager at Exponential and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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