Over the last several months, we were all schooled on the pervasiveness of fake news and the harm it can cause. With ads appearing on fake news sites or adjacent to inflammatory -- and possibly fake -- content, advertisers suddenly faced a new and unexpected challenge in the era of automated ad buying. How can major, big-budget advertisers achieve their goal of reaching target audiences at scale if they are suppressing content out of fear of authenticity and brand safety?
Some in the programmatic space are saying you can't have scale and brand protection, but with a few simple steps you actually can have both. The answer starts and ends with advertisers and agencies taking responsibility and ownership of their ad buys. This has been too often entrusted to platforms and tech partners, and the results are not only harmful to advertisers, they compromise the entire ecosystem.
As Interactive Advertising Bureau President and CEO Randall Rothenberg often points out, proper supply-chain management is a discipline in every industry. Only in digital advertising is the responsibility for it outsourced. It's time for brand advertisers and their agencies to begin to examine and systematize their own supply-chain management.
Keeping your ads off fake news pages isn't hard at all. But it does require some stepping up, first by demanding transparency. Advertisers must demand to know exactly which sites will be displaying their ads. While networks may tout the premium publishers within their portfolios, they're less enthusiastic about listing smaller and potentially lower quality sites. While platforms love to tout their reach, the long tail of inventory can be very long (as in millions of sites). You, the buyer, have a right to ask, and a right to know.
Three crucial steps
For programmatic campaigns, let's start with the fundamentals: no "open" exchange buying allowed. Instead, you'll need to create a whitelist. Work with your partners to build this list of acceptable publishers, but don't offload it to them. It's a matter of brand safety, but it's also a matter of results: campaigns that run on high-quality, respectable sites actually perform better. While you may be sacrificing some scale for quality, it will pay off in the end.
It's popular today to suggest that a "blacklisting" approach -- adding known offenders to a campaign's do-not-run segment -- is sufficient. This is a mistake, particularly in the programmatic exchange ecosystem where new sites can find their way onto exchanges every day, with unknown vetting procedures. A blacklisting approach invites constant whack-a-mole, at best. A whitelist is most definitely the preferable option.
That said, advertisers need to be in control of their whitelists to ensure they're being respected. To that end, it's also advisable to layer in third-party verification technology. This will lock in whitelist compliance across programmatic campaigns at a reasonable incremental cost.
This technology will also allow advertisers to be vigilant about monitoring their partners, ensuring no aspects of their campaigns are being farmed out to third parties without their direct knowledge or express consent. Rebrokering to networks or publisher "audience extensions" across exchanges quietly occurs within many campaigns, and these shadow partners may not always follow the rules. Going a step beyond brand safety, some of the highest levels of nonhuman traffic have been traced to desperate traffic buying attempts by publishers.
Get it in writing
To lock things down, make sure you get a commitment in writing from each of your partners. Get your publishers and platform partners to sign an addendum to your insertion order or service agreement stating that they will adhere to your whitelist, that they will not farm out campaign fulfillment -- or if they do, they will ensure that their partners will respect your brand guidelines and take responsibility. Establish a zero-tolerance policy: one strike and they're out. One bad adjacency can cause a whole lot of damage.
Advertisers need to be confident that ads are appearing on high-quality, honest sites that meet their individual brand standards. This is done by advertisers taking an active role in managing their own supply chain. This will not only protect individual brands, it will improve the entire industry supply chain. Allocating media budgets to high-quality, honest publishers and diverting funds away from fake news sites and clickbait ensures we all get a better digital media ecosystem.
There are partners that advertisers can work with every step of the way. And the little work it may require today will benefit everyone in the industry in the days and years ahead.