Publishers complain about media buyers blacklisting coronavirus content
Publishers have grown increasingly frustrated with third-party measurement companies, saying the vendors are preventing them from capitalizing on a surge of traffic driven by content related to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the heart of the issue are media buyers who are blacklisting coronavirus content in the name of brand safety through measurement companies such as DoubleVerify. This includes stories like Business Insiders’ “13 movies and shows to watch during your coronavirus quarantine.” It also includes the homepage of publications such as the New York Times and Vox—both of which feature a collection of stories on COVID-19.
Although other measurement companies are blacklisting coronavirus content, DoubleVerify was thrust into the spotlight after BeesWax CEO Ari Paparo posted an image on Twitter of DoubleVerify’s clouds covering the New York Times’ homepage.
(Measurement companies like DoubleVerify block the ads and replace them with its own image, which features nothing but clouds—a practice known as “brand suitability blocks.”)
Not long after, a top executive at DoubleVerify responded with what the company described as a “tweetstorm” on the matter. It also posted two updates on its website saying it supports publishers.
“The idea that a Vox, or the New York Times’ homepage, is being blocked as a default option is a prime example of brand safety being past its intended solution that it’s trying to solve for,” says Ryan Pauley, chief revenue officer at Vox Media.
Blacklisting is having a material impact on publishers. The New York Times, for instance, forecast to investors that digital ad revenue would decline 10 percent. Business Insider, meanwhile, tells Ad Age that CPMs, or cost per thousand impressions, have fallen 10 percent. And a recent report from cybersecurity company Cheq says $2.8 billion was lost due to “incorrect blocking of safe content on premium news sites” in 2019.
In some cases, publishers are not paid after a brand suitability block is executed, according to DoubleVerify. In those instances, it’s unclear where the money goes. DoubleVerify is a neutral party and says it doesn’t handle media payments, so it says it is not sure. Ad Age put the question to several publishers, ad tech executives and consultants, who also did not know.
“This is going to highlight some of the inadequacies of the ad technology ecosystem,” says Pauley. “There are a lot of middlemen between the brand and media partner and there isn’t much value being added along the way.”
In many cases, both publisher and advertiser are not aware as to how often brand suitability blocks are occurring, says Shailin Dhar, CEO of technology product company Method Media Intelligence.
“There’s a lot to be said about why neither publishers nor advertisers can clearly confirm whether they are affected financially by brand suitability blocks,” according to Dhar. “Money goes into the ad tech ecosystem and comes out the other end to the publisher, but nobody knows who pays for what.”
For some, there may be a question as to whether it’s unseemly to turn a buck on the back of a pandemic in the first place. But for publishers ad revenue associated with the COVID-19 crisis is critical, says Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, an ad trade body representing publishers.
“There may be certain advertisers who subjectively aren’t suitable,” says Kint. “But advertising is a critical vehicle that supports the journalism being done nationally, locally and globally.”
Below is Paparo's tweet, which shows DoubleVerify's clouds covering the top ad slot on the New York Times homepage:
‘Literally cannot figure it out’
Although the issue with DoubleVerify’s clouds has long existed with publishers, it didn’t have a material impact until the coronavirus outbreak, as news publications are pushing out content related to the pandemic at an extraordinary rate and seeing massive traffic in return.
Business Insider, for example, saw 63 million page views from roughly 13,600 coronavirus related stories last week. For context, the publisher saw fewer than that (54 million views) from nearly 2 million stories that didn’t include coverage of the virus during the same time period, according to Jana Meron, VP of programmatic and data strategy at Business Insider.
“I believe when the clouds show up we don’t get paid, even though the advertiser has won the impression,” says Meron, who adds that she doesn’t know how often DoubleVerify’s clouds are even showing up. “I literally cannot figure it out … I don’t have a contact at DoubleVerify.”
Meron was also critical of DoubleVerify’s technology. “It’s not catching the nuances,” she says. “It is not using context as a clue if a story is positive or negative. It’s old technology that doesn’t take a lot of things into account."
Matt McLaughlin, chief operating officer at DoubleVerify, says when the company blocks an ad it sends it back to the publisher to try and resell, but in some cases, publishers don’t have that opportunity. “The question is what do you do with that ad space,” says McLaughlin.
“The coronavirus global epidemic is unprecedented in terms of the amount of content being generated and global consumer interest,” McLaughlin says, adding that the surge in blacklisted content is largely due to the company including coronavirus under its “natural disasters” classification; an option most advertisers select by default.
Default options typically control a person’s behavior. In 2016, for example, more than 75 percent of search queries performed on Microsoft phones were executed on Bing as it was the default search engine. DoubleVerify now says it is asking clients to exempt trusted news publishers from the natural disaster category.
“Our position to brands is that we are going to recommend they take a series of steps to max distribution on news publications because of the important role they play in distributing information,” McLaughlin says. “Because that content will be prevalent for a long time.”