Brand Safety:  Who Goes Out with the Bathwater?

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Cover image for  article: Brand Safety:  Who Goes Out with the Bathwater?

Brand safety has moved from a topic of discussion to a fundamental part of how ad operations does its job.  It’s a great shift from an industry that has long talked about doing something (centuries in adtech years) but hasn’t rolled up its sleeves and really started to solve our brand safety issues.  The $8+ billion a year fraud problem wouldn’t be so big if there was more doing and less talking.

But, this year I’m seeing the change at the industry level as well as the department level. A couple of weeks ago I delivered a brand safety training class that dove into the impact that malware, NHT (non-human traffic) and contextual relevancy have on digital advertising with tips and techniques for fighting fraudsters and providing brand safe environments for advertising.  Ad operations often plays the role of security guards trying to keep everything secure and so my class of publisher and agency ad ops managers were not only interested in how such fraud is perpetrated but how to combat it.

In the class, however, it also became clear that there is a divide between the larger publishers who can assign resources to brand safety best practices like testing every creative they receive and medium and smaller publishers who either can’t check everything or get to it only when they can.  Some publishers are so understaffed in this area that they forego implementing brand safety measures and only react when something goes wrong.  This means malware or malvertising isn’t stopped before it can be served.  It means brands find that the impressions they bought weren’t viewable by humans after the fact, creating distrust and costly discrepancies.  Small publishers don’t want to be unsafe – they just can’t always afford to implement industry best practices.  As buyers move to only buying brand safe environments, it concerns me that smaller publishers may be left out in the cold.

It’s important to make the distinction between legitimate publishers and what I’ll call “impression clearinghouses.”  There are companies working hard to create content for their users and grow their businesses with ad support.  Others, however, are in the business of making revenue from advertising based on weaknesses in the way today’s digital media is bought and sold.  It’s a get rich scheme that we as an industry are funding: as programmatic has enabled buyers to buy the audiences they want regardless of the site it is served on, brands will find themselves in very questionable places and those questionable places will make money.  People go to unsavory places on the Internet and brands will follow them there (and get themselves into trouble) until they truly consider what sites they run on.  Unfortunately, legitimate quality publishers won’t make the cut if they aren’t up-to-date on industry-wide initiatives and only the big guys prosper.

Ads.txt is a perfect example.  Ads.txt is a text file that publishers put on their site to identify the means by which the ads on that site can be bought.  It helps prevent domain spoofing, which allows fraudsters to act like a legit site and collect on misappropriated ad revenue.  Ads.txt is relatively simple to implement and I believe that there will be enough adoption across the industry that it will eventually be the default:  Buyers will only buy impressions on sites that have an ads.txt file in place.  A great, necessary step -- and yet sites that don’t know about ads.txt could be excluded from premium advertising.

Whitelisting is another tactic that is growing in importance allowing buyers to place ads on sites they know are safe.  This is a more effective approach than blacklisting which tries to exclude unsafe sites from the buy and becomes a version of whack-a-mole as fraudsters often slip through.  Companies like Trust Metrics help create custom whitelists for buyers based on what the buyer considers safe.  Somehow, legitimate small publishers are going to have to know how to be included on whitelists or they may not even be in consideration.  Buyers are also using companies like Grapeshot to determine how contextually “safe” a particular page is for one of their ads.  Smaller sites won’t be excluded, but will they know why they are getting flagged and what they can do to increase their participation in campaigns?

These initiatives, along with others, will require education for publishers who would probably rather focus on making great content than delve into the world of adtech.  My fear, of course, is that the price of doing business will be too high for these small businesses to have a sustainable business model.  The Internet is unique because everyone can publish.  Do we want to make it unaffordable for people to make a living at it?

My hope is that some in the adtech community recognize an opportunity to make sure smaller publishers become brand-safe environments and they see more ad revenue as a result.  Without help, we risk classifying legitimate publishers with fraudsters, which is throwing the baby out with the bathwater as we try to clean up our industry.

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