As a former marketer who managed ad budgets in the tens of millions for iconic brands, I was often frustrated by the lack of sophistication and control over where the investments went. Today, in addition to fraud, brands have to deal with the added issue of their ads ending up in unsafe environments – and accidentally funding fake news, disinformation, and hate speech.
Check My Ads is a brand safety consultancy that empowers marketers to protect their brands. Nandini Jammi and Clare Atkin started Check My Ads in response to the most pervasive problem in the advertising industry: marketers are in the dark about where their ads end up online — and those ads are inevitably ending up in bad places on the web.
I caught up with them to find out more about their groundbreaking and essential product which couldn’t have come at a more necessary time.
Afdhel Aziz: Nandini and Claire, welcome. Can you please talk a little bit about your journey with Sleeping Giants and what made you start Check My Ads?
Nandini Jammi: Sure. My journey into brand safety started in November 2016 after the U.S. elections. I visited Breitbart, a website that had been putting out hateful stories and disinformation throughout the election cycle. I was curious to see for myself what goes on on this website. But I’m a marketer, and the first thing I noticed was the ads. More specifically, ads for the brands and businesses I shop with. Of course, I wasn’t new to the idea of ads following me around on the internet, but it was very disconcerting to see these ads appearing on Breitbart.
Having run digital campaigns before, I knew these ads were being placed programmatically and the brands likely had no idea they were running on Breitbart. So why not let them know? In a remarkable coincidence, I found a partner who had already gotten started under the anonymous Twitter account, Sleeping Giants. We would take screenshots and ping the brand on social media, asking them to block Breitbart from their ad buy. It was a simple act of resistance against hate speech. Practically overnight we amassed a community of thousands of followers who helped us scale our effort.
I never imagined the impact our campaign would have on the ad industry. Advertisers had been on autopilot for years. Now, they were looking into their ads for the first time and learning that they were on all kinds of ugly content on the internet.
But after running this campaign for several years, I began asking, “Why are advertisers still funding hate speech and disinformation online? Why has no one solved this problem yet?”
Claire Atkin: Nandini and I are both marketers, and followed each other on Twitter for ages before we met in person last year. That summer, we started researching how digital advertising actually works. We knew it would be complicated and messy, but we didn’t expect the supply chain to be so willfully difficult to navigate.
Once your advertising budget leaves your wallet, the supply chain is designed to hide your spending at every turn. It’s virtually impossible for a marketer to know how their budget is being spent and where it’s really going. We realized that after years of putting our ads on autopilot, marketers don’t really know how to decide where their ads should go and where they shouldn’t go.
We started Check My Ads to help marketers take back control of their budgets and make sure their ad placements are reflecting their brand values and, importantly, not going towards publishers that make our communities less safe.
Aziz: Fascinating. So, could you please describe what Check My Ads does?
Jammi: Check My Ads is a brand safety consultancy. We help brands decide where their line is for what is and is not acceptable context for their ads. We help them write their own media guidelines and decide where they should be advertising. We equip them with frameworks and approaches so they can make their own decisions on where their ads should go.
Atkin: We often get asked “where should my ads go?” That’s not what we do. We don’t give out a blocklist, for instance. Instead, we want marketing teams to be able to make their own decisions rather than have tech companies make it for them. So we run training workshops for marketing and communications teams, and we write a free newsletter called BRANDED that covers all the new brand safety issues and solutions on the market.
Aziz: Why do you think marketers are in the dark about where their ad dollars go to?
Jammi: Marketers are at the mercy of extremely dark and opaque supply chain. We have found that adtech companies are more interested in maximizing their profits rather than helping advertisers spend their budget efficiently.
For example, we conducted a review for Headphones.com. We found that retargeting company Criteo had set up dashboards that were only showing them their aggregate performance across thousands of websites. OK, but which sites were actually driving conversions? Criteo responded to emails asking them for that information by supplying a whole new dashboard with that information. It’s like they really don’t want you to know where your own money is going.
Aziz: What are some of the problems with conventional brand safety platforms that are being used?
Jammi: Where should we begin? I have described brand safety technology as fundamentally anti-democratic. You can draw a direct line between the fall of newsrooms and brand safety technology. Last year, these companies blocked $3 billion dollars from reaching the news media.
The first problem with brand safety is that at the most basic level, it simply does not work. There are two types of technology it uses: keyword blocking and semantic intelligence. We took the algorithm for a spin, and it didn’t even flag up a white nationalist site. It did find Black Lives Matter reporting and LGBTQ topics to be brand unsafe.
Atkin: The second problem is that brand safety platforms don’t understand how brand safety works. Brand safety is about making sure your ad spend aligns with your values. You don’t need an algorithm to scan every single page on the internet. You need to make sure your ads aren’t funding extremist organizations, bad actors and conspiracy theorists.
Brand safety technologists seem to think that marketers want a page-by-page blocking tool. But we don’t. What we need is something that blocks our ad budgets from funding bad faith organizations. What brand safety technology will do is scan every page of an extremist media outlet’s website and decide which ones are “brand safe.” That just doesn’t make sense. We don’t want to be funding that organization at all.
Aziz: It shows you how brand marketers need to challenge their agencies to really raise their game. Finally, what three pieces of advice would you give to marketers who want to make sure their media isn’t accidentally funding hate speech and disinformation?
Jammi: You cannot automate your way to brand safety. No machine in the world can tell you how a person is going to feel when they see your brand out in the wild. You can’t let a machine decide how you’re going to advertise.
To check on your own brand safety, start with three things:
- Check your ads to see where you’re advertising. You’ll be surprised at what you find when you look at your site list.
- Build inclusion lists to control your campaigns. You’ll be able to run a tighter ship and you’re less likely to waste your ad budget on dark corners of the web.