According to a September 2017 study by the CMO Council and Dow Jones, a quarter of the world’s marketers have reported specific examples where their digital advertising appeared alongside offensive and compromising content. It’s no surprise, then, that almost three quarters (72%) of respondents engaged in programmatic buying are concerned about their brand placement, and integrity.

A very public issue

The issue catapulted beyond the walls of ad land into the wider public consciousness earlier this year when an investigation by The Times revealed that brands such as Jaguar and Sandals were unwittingly appearing on – and, as a result, funding – the websites of Islamic extremists and white supremacists.

While cases involving extremist content are obviously undesirable for nearly all companies, brand safety breaches aren’t always so clear cut. A sports car brand doesn’t want to appear next to a story about a motorway pile-up, for example. And we mustn’t forget the infamous duck ad that was served next to an article on Yahoo’s health and wellness website about ‘anatidaephobia’ – the unusual fear of being watched by a duck.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned CMO Council survey found nearly half of consumers have said that they would re-think or boycott brands that appear next to content that offends or alienates them – demonstrating just how important it is for the issue to be addressed.

A programmatic problem?

For many, the rise of brand safety compromises directly correlates with the rise in programmatic – making it very easy to point the finger. But brand safety issues are as old as advertising – and, rather than being the cause of the problem, programmatic is illuminating the online ad space.

For the first time, we actually know where ads are going and are able to evaluate exact ad placement in real time – and this means we can try to create the safe environments that advertisers understandably require.

Baby steps

And it certainly isn’t all doom and gloom – the fight to protect brand safety has come on in leaps and bounds in the past year. According to Integral Ad Science’s H1 2017 Media Quality Report, the industry is already starting to reap the benefits – brand safety risk on desktop has fallen from 6.8% to 3.7%, for example.

But there is still room for improvement. We just need to look across the pond to huge investment bank JPMorgan Chase, which was left red-faced when it was found by the New York Times to be advertising on a site called Hillary 4 Prison. The bank has subsequently cut the number of sites it advertises on from 400,000 to just 5,000—demonstrating the lengths a brand will go to, to protect their safety.

How to play it safe

In an ideal world, there would be a one size fits all solution to guarantee 100% brand safety. But while brand safety tools are a step in the right direction – and there are some excellent tools available today – unfortunately the ability of the bad players to evolve and adapt means that, alone, they are not enough. To get the best protection, brands need to exert control through multiple layers of monitoring, measurement and alert systems in place.

Here are some other great ways that we can all work towards a safer advertising environment:

1. Black and white lists

These are an important, yet simple, method of protecting brand safety. But, while they offer good baseline protection, they can’t just be created once and then left in stasis. What constitutes ‘safe’ can vary hugely from brand to brand and, as bad actors evolve, they need constant evaluation and maintenance to ensure they remain accurate and valuable to the brand.

2. Staying within the private marketplace

Using a private marketplace offers brands increased control over ad placement by enabling them to work only with trusted publishers. Being able to pick and choose where ads are displayed gives brands the ability to control their adjacency to content, or the ‘room’ that they perform in.

3. Pay for premium content

The digital world we live in has certainly brought many advantages, but it has also enabled any Tom, Dick or Harry to appear online, and do or say whatever they like. This is why user-generated and long-tail content poses one of the biggest risks to brand safety as it can’t be controlled or monitored thoroughly enough.

It is important to consider the difference between cost and value here: premium content does come at a price, but it also has greater potential to deliver campaigns with value. Let’s stop competing for the most clicks, and start competing for the right clicks.

Solutions up the supply chain

Brand safety is an issue that affects the integrity of the whole industry. Ultimately, every player in the supply chain needs to accept responsibility for their role in cleaning up their section of the process. But it is the supply side – the publishers and the SSPs (supply side platforms) – who need to lead the way by actively removing any inappropriate inventory.

2017 may be remembered as the year that brand safety infractions came to a head. Rather than focusing on the problem, let’s mark it as the beginning of the solution – and work together as an industry to protect every brand.

Further reading: