Matt Brittin, Google's president of business and operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, apologized today for the brand safety issues affecting advertisers and acknowledged that the problem – which has until now been focused on the U.K. – is a global issue.
Speaking at the opening day of Advertising Week Europe, he said, "This is a good opportunity for me to say sorry, this should not have happened, and we need to do better."
Today, retailer Marks & Spencer was the latest U.K. marketer to pull its ads from Google because of extremist content fears. Over the weekend, three of Britain's biggest banks -- HSBC, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland -- did the same.
On Friday, Havas Group U.K. announced it would freeze all display spending on Google and YouTube, after ads for its clients appeared next to "questionable or unsafe content" online.
Mr. Brittin confirmed he had spoken to a number of concerned advertisers over the last few days, including the U.K. government. He added, "It's true that some in the U.K. have seen the issue earlier, but customers … expect the same standards everywhere, so we are having conversations with global players. We have to comply with expectations globally, as well as complying with local law."
Unilever CMO Keith Weed, speaking with Mr. Brittin at an Advertising Week Europe session, would not comment on Unilever's own issues with Google over brand safety, saying that he preferred to keep negotiations private. But he said, "Don't think for a second that we're not having the right sort of conversations. We are tracking the situation. We have not yet been affected."
In an Advertising Week Europe session an hour earlier in the same auditorium, Interpublic Group Chairman and CEO Michael Roth said Interpublic also has a client or two in the same situation "and we made a conscious decision not to freeze [ad spending]." He said Interpublic has spoken with Google and chose to hold them accountable for solving the problem rather than pulling ads.
"If they don't, it'll adversely affect them economically," he said. "In the end, the best way to fix it is to hold them economically accountable."
Mr. Roth said that Interpublic's Mediabrands unit is also monitoring the brand safety issue. He pointed out that the ads associated with inappropriate content were display ads, and that the great majority of ad spending on Google is search advertising.
"Both Google and Facebook have advisory councils, agencies and clients are on them, and the listen," Mr. Roth said. "We're not giving them a free pass."
Mr. Weed said that not all the blame lies with the tech companies. He said, "Accountability applies to marketers and media agencies as well. They need to get a lot closer to what's going on … If as an advertiser or an agency you are just going for the cheapest across the internet … you might not end up where you want to be."
Google already has a review underway looking at its practices around unsafe advertising, but Mr. Brittin confirmed that this has been accelerated in response to media attention on the issue.
He said, "You've seen more press attention, so obviously for advertisers it goes up their agenda, which is one of the reasons we want to accelerate the review and respond better. Also the fact we are having more conversations gives us more input, which is helpful for us. We have to respond responsibly – we can see some things we can do more quickly … We have to do it in a way that's right and more long term sustainable."
Google's review is focused on three key areas: policies, controls for advertisers, and enforcement. Mr. Brittin promised to "raise the bar" on policy by examining which areas are judged to be safe for advertising, and on controls by making them simpler for advertisers to use, with default settings at a safer level.
Regarding enforcement, he claimed that already 98% of flagged content is reviewed within 24 hours, and that 300 million YouTube videos, and hundreds of thousands of websites, were removed from the advertising ecosystem last year, but he acknowledged that there is still room for improvement.
As an Advertising Week Europe sponsor, Google execs are scattered throughout the program as speakers. Mr. Brittin appeared to have been the designated Google exec to address the issue publicly at the event. Company execs participating in other sessions during the day, like a panel on artificial intelligence, didn't mention it.
Mr. Brittin refused to confirm whether or not Google will start to be more proactive in identifying the kind of legal but unsafe sites that share hate content and have been the focus of advertiser discontent. He defended Google's safety record, claiming that the company has millions of dollars invested in thousands of people, in order to uphold the quality of its advertising practices.
Mr. Brittin added, "You will find online content that you violently disagree with, but it's a legitimate point of view that's not illegal. That's different from the question of what's safe for advertising, which is more tightly defined."
Contributing: Laurel Wentz