Why The Job Of Brand Safety Keeps Getting Tougher

As threats to brand safety mushroom, brand management teams increasingly find themselves stuck in whack-a-mole mode.

At GroupM, a leading global media investment firm, EVP of Brand Safety John Montgomery leads the charge to cultivate effective brand safety best practices. I recently asked him to shed light on his priorities.

Paul Talbot: When you consider the challenges of nurturing and safeguarding brand safety, what tops the list?

John Montgomery: If you had asked this question a few years ago, the major client concern would be how to keep brands from appearing adjacent to inappropriate content.

Now, clients are concerned about the broader issue of keeping harmful content off the web and how to help make social platforms, in particular, safer for users. A good example of this is when LoopMe issued its ‘Hate-Free Promise’ to advertisers to ensure their ads would not appear adjacent to harmful content.

Talbot: What happens when the objectives of brand safety move beyond tech? If the objective is to protect brand equity and cement consumer trust, what else besides tech considerations needs to be happening to achieve these goals?

Montgomery: Brand safety has been focused on digital because the advent of behavioral targeting and automation has made it the most vulnerable. And brand safety isn’t just about adjacency, it extends to any risk a brand may face in the digital supply chain such as invalid traffic, viewability, privacy and data integrity.

Risks have always existed beyond digital. For example, when Bill O’Reilly becomes a toxic property, when an influencer jokes about suicide and when a brand gets tangled up in disinformation on a platform like Fox or NewsMax.

Talbot: Your brands are in the homes of a nation that is not only polarized politically, but often dismissive of fact and truth. How do you suggest brand management teams navigate these difficult waters?

Montgomery: GroupM has a process called a risk analysis that it takes its clients through to help them understand the risks, rewards and implications of advertising on various channels.

Brands can limit their risks to virtually zero, but that comes with significant implications to cost efficiency and reach. But I don’t think that we have seen the worst of the risk that brands face by exposure to disinformation, both potentially about the brands themselves or about brands having to choose sides that could alienate a portion of their target market.

We began the process of brand risk assessment in 2017 to help our agency teams consult with clients on how they should interpret their brand values into digital strategies and implementation tactics.

§ Beyond brand safety, how can we apply a brand suitability model to align messaging with the most appropriate, brand safe environments?

  • Is the brand only concerned with audience delivery?
  • Is performance our primary objective, or should we compromise some of that potential performance to protect brand equity and support a safer ecosystem that denies revenue to fraudsters, pirates, and misinformation purveyors?
  • Is avoiding direct adjacency to distasteful or negative news enough to satisfy my communication needs while preserving our brand values?
  • Do I want to use my media schedule to send a signal to potential partners that protecting brands is not enough, that consumer safety is paramount, that bias against protected groups, digital privacy, and the aggressive elimination of child endangerment, hate speech, graphically obscene content and irresponsible treatment of debated social issues must be elevated to the status of priority above and beyond revenue generation?

The GroupM brand safety risk assessment is designed to help our agencies and clients determine a balance of tolerance vs. tactics, to guide media planning and buying decisions across the digital ecosystem.

New targeting and verification capabilities and publisher and platform responsiveness have improved our ability to navigate in programmatic, paid social, paid search, emerging platforms and influencer environments while minimizing risk.

Talbot: Historically, leading brands have at times strived to serve as unifiers. We’ve seen this with products ranging from Coca-Cola to Chevrolet. Where do creative campaigns with unifying as a theme fit into the mood of the times? Do they pose a risk to brand safety through unintended but possible polarization?

Montgomery: Brands can play an exciting creative role with social issues – just look at the great work P&G has done with gender and race. But brands are also doing a fantastic job in media by addressing harmful content on the web through the GARM (Global Alliance for Responsible Media), which has unified the industry – marketers, agencies, associations and media behind a single approach to address harmful content.

Talbot: Any other insights on brand safety you’d like to share?

Montgomery: Of course 🙂 One way of helping to address disinformation and polarization is to get more journalists with feet on the ground in local communities reporting on real facts.

Local news has been pulverized by the shift to digital and most recently the pandemic. The marketing industry should support news, not just to save journalism but because it’s an effective medium, engendering trust in the local communities where consumers shop for marketers brands and by delivering a better quality digital impression.

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