The issue most likely to keep the marketing industry up at night? It’s got to be brand safety. Causing a stir last month, research by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) revealed that brand safety is a firm priority, with 70% saying the issue has escalated in the past year and almost half of brands starting to work with third parties in a bid to protect their brand’s image.

Brand safety is a phrase that’s constantly banded around, but what does is actually mean? In advertising, risks to brand safety arise with the possibility of ads appearing next to anything from extremist content to porn to content that generally goes against their values or philosophy. It can take a slightly different meaning for every company, but as soon as content so much as contradicts their message, it represents a risk to their brand safety. No brand wants to appear on terrorist sites, but it would also be pretty damaging for an airline to appear next to a plane crash story. You get the picture.

And it’s an issue that has rocketed into the limelight this year – triggered by an investigation by The Times, which kicked up a storm when it found that brands including Waitrose, Marie Curie and Mercedes-Benz were appearing on hate sites and next to YouTube videos created by terrorism supporters. This ‘terror funding’ scandal was damaging not only for those particular brands, but also for trust in the advertising industry.

Programmatic shines the light

With automation making it possible to buy and sell impressions in real-time, many have been quick to point the finger at programmatic. But while some say it’s causing a lack of brand safety, programmatic has actually shone a light on an issue that is as old as online advertising. For the first time ever, advertisers can evaluate media buying in real time. We now have much greater visibility over where ads are going, and we can ensure that we create the safe environments that advertisers require.

It’s also worth noting the subtleties of programmatic, mainly to distinguish between the ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ methods. Programmatic direct operates safely with private marketplaces and header bidding to control their ads, and it’s programmatic direct that dominates the industry.  Earlier this year, the IAB revealed that 49% is traded this way and it continues to grow 9% year-on-year, while the slightly more risky programmatic indirect stays at 24% each year.

A problem shared is a problem halved

So whose responsibility is it to ensure that brands aren’t popping up next to inappropriate content? This is where it gets complicated: brands blame their agencies for a lack of transparency; agencies continue to blame the technology they use; then it’s the fault of the SSP for supplying these kinds of sites; and so on, until we come full circle to Marc Pritchard’s famous statement. The media supply chain could indeed be seen as murky, and following The Times’ outings, it looks as much to the industry outsider.

But the solution won’t come from a schoolyard blame game. Of course, the supply side – the publishers and the SSPs – will need to lead the way removing any inappropriate inventory, but every player in the supply chain has a role to play.

Better safe than sorry

While brand safety tools are a step in the right direction, they’re not enough by themselves. So here are the best ways we can all work towards a safer advertising environment:

  • Black and white lists

At the top of the funnel, using black and whitelists sounds like a simple solution – and it is, but it’s only truly effective when used alongside other steps. They offer baseline protection, but they must be maintained continuously, and shouldn’t be relied upon for full brand safety.

  • Pay for premium

Given that the biggest danger comes from long tail and user-generated content – because it is so much harder to control – risk-adverse brands need to accept the need to stick to premium content to guarantee brand safety. But if brands do advertise next to user-generated content, they should make sure really valid safety mechanisms are in place, along with independent measurement technologies.

  • The private marketplace approach

Unfortunately – and despite our best efforts – the supply chain can sometimes be a little murky, but buying in a private marketplace is a great way of eliminating risk. Private marketplaces offer increased control over ad placement, helping brands to pick and choose where their ads are shown – and ensure that they’re only working with trusted publishers.

Moving in the right direction

Unfortunately, brand safety is always going to be an issue in our industry. As advertisers, it will never be possible to 100% guarantee brand safety 100% of the time. Every time we eliminate a bad player, another sneaks in. Put an inappropriate site on a blacklist, and another will pop up – it’s like an infuriating game of whack-a-mole.

But thanks to programmatic shining a light on the issue, we’re working towards an environment with fewer risks and pitfalls. And it seems to be working – the recent H1 2017 Media Quality Report conducted by the analysts at Integral Ad Science has found that brand safety risk is actually falling – down from 6.8% to 3.7% on desktop, for example.

A price to pay

But there’s still room for improvement, and the bottom line is that advertisers need to understand that there’s a price to pay for their safety – a security tax, if you will. Before the calls for cost transparency, the price of premium protection was wrapped up in one fee. But now the costs are spelled out, advertisers are opting for the cheaper option minus the security. You wouldn’t buy a car without airbags – well, this is the same.

It’s encouraging to see from the WFA’s research that many brands are taking the issue into their own hands. The only way to ensure that action is taken higher up in the supply chain is for advertisers to shout about it from the rooftops and demand that more is done to protect their brand. As the noise gets louder and the supply chain takes the issue more seriously, we’ll be in a better position to kick brand safety to the side line.

Sacha Berlik

Sacha Berlik


Sacha Berlik, Managing Director for EMEA at The Trade Desk