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Will Covid-19 be brand safety’s watershed moment?

In the second of a two part review into digital marketing during coronavirus, Tom Alington looks at how covid-19 may be a turning point for ad tech’s approach to brand safety.


As we seek to adjust to these uncertain times, all of us have been left reconsidering the status quo. The norms have been lifted from our day to day lives and the vast majority of industries in which we work have been disrupted. Digital advertising is no different, with Marketing Week reporting in mid-March that 60% of budget commitments were being either delayed or reviewed. The rapid development of the virus also highlighted an issue with the industry's response to breaking news and journalism more broadly; the need for a sharper and smarter application of brand safety technology.


Media agencies, advertisers and third party verification companies have all been quick to identify news regarding the epidemic as content to avoid. The digital advertising reaction is similar for one of a terrorist incident; related terms are added to negative keyword lists, specific categories are blocked and verification vendors reach out to media agencies with adjusted settings. This is an instant shielding mechanism from appearing against this news, but is costing publishers huge amounts.


On any news site today, there is broad coverage on Covid-19 and the impacts it is having on schools, businesses and the heroic NHS. Even within the articles not predominantly about the virus there is likely to be some mention of it as with this Tom Hanks example, or it will appear on the page through a suggested or trending article.


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It was estimated last year publishers lost £170m in ad revenue in the UK as a result of negative keyword blocking, but given the sheer volume of Covid-19 articles and the blunt response by advertisers this is likely to be significantly higher in 2020. Even ministers have become concerned by the scale of the issue, writing a letter to advertisers requesting a change to their blanket keyword approach. In the current brand safety response, the profiteers are low quality, often click-bait sites written with the aim of avoiding words which may be flagged on a negative keyword list.


Genuine publishers are now being forced into finding alternative ways to sell their ad space. In the US, TRUSTX has agreed a deal with its publisher group whereby an extra 10% of impressions bought will be used to promote Public Service Announcements, aiming to incentivise media planners. In the UK, a leading newspaper reached out last week with a Coronavirus specific PMP deal which had a CPM of just £2, illustrating the low level of competition on these news pieces.


Is this a risk for brands?

Firstly, the question should be actively considered as to whether all of the Covid-19 content is risky for all brands to appear next to. If you saw a banner ad in one of your daily updates on Covid-19 from, for example, the New York Times, would you think of that brand unfavourably? This seems illogical, but is the scenario that one advertiser attempted to avoid, leading to DoubleVerify’s post-bid clouds appearing on NYT’s homepage.

Imagine buying the NYTimes homepage masthead ad slot then letting a vendor decide it wasn’t brand-safe? Idiocy.


There are inevitably exceptions such as not encouraging people to visit stores during non-essential travel restrictions, or perhaps for certain healthcare brands but the one-size-fits-all approach of labelling any news site at the moment as averse for all brands is lazy.


If the issue is the chance of appearing against fake news or misinformation around the virus, then I would completely agree this is something to avoid. However the question should really be levelled at appearing on these sites at all, not just specific to Covid-19. If that publisher is willing to create misleading information on this topic, the likelihood is the same will follow on other news stories and is something which should be blocked at domain level rather than by keyword. One solution comes from NewsGuard who have rated over 4,000 news websites around transparency of ownership and accuracy in information published, which would allow advertisers to create a simple whitelist or blacklist based on that criteria. Their dataset covers 95% of online engagement in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and Italy and includes flags for specific categories of false news, such as health misinformation, conspiracy theories and hoax stories.


Anna-Sophie Harling, NewsGuard's Head of Europe, said, "With COVID-19 dominating the news cycle, keyword blacklisting has the potential to hurt the news industry just when we need it most. Advertisers should ensure that their ad spend funds websites carrying out responsible journalism, rather than bad actors spreading dangerous misinformation."


Anna-Sophie Harling
Anna-Sophie Harling, Head of Europe, NewsGuard


What can we do to advance brand safety?

Brand safety tools being used today are the same ones which were thought up at the birth of real-time bidding. The responsibility for advancing brand safety falls upon everyone in the industry. Media agencies, brands and verification partners have a duty to create a smarter approach and to stop hurting quality journalism.


Media Agencies

The IAB have warned against the problems of evergrowing negative keyword lists, imploring agencies to review these monthly rather than blocking stretching to tens, even hundreds of thousands of terms. Ultimately keywords should be used as an immediate response. Once news items have been categorised by the DSP or Verification tool these keywords can be removed.



Agencies should look to be as sharp as possible on their URL blocking and may need to start enlisting help from the likes of NewsGuard to curate whitelists and blacklists. There is also support from the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU), a specialist unit within the City of London Police, which provides the Infringing Website List to avoid known illegal websites.


Finally, it is important agencies ensure the third-party verification tools are being customised specific to the advertiser. For instance, in the DoubleVerify block on the New York Times home page, it would have been possible for the advertiser to create a URL exception to allow their ad to show.



A lot of the pressure for media agencies to apply these brand safety tools comes from an old school thinking to avoid all negative content. In some brand’s cases this may be the right thing for Covid-19, in others there’s the opportunity to do something positive in an otherwise difficult time, as highlighted in this AdAge tracker. The important thing is to have the discussion rather than a knee-jerk reaction suitable for other news stories. 



Verification Partners

While they allow the customisation of their tools, it is crucial that verification vendors consider carefully the default options they are applying and the longer term impact this can have on journalism.


As mentioned in this article from Digiday, sentiment analysis going beyond the keyword level is an area being explored by new and existing partners, if not yet perfected. If these tools managed to become scalable, this would be a huge opportunity for brand safety to advance its level of sophistication. 


Overall it’s clear Brand Safety requires advancement of technology and the application of these tools, that is something agreed from all angles within digital advertising. Brand Suitability is now being touted as the next wave approach to ensure a more precise and customised strategy appropriate for each advertiser. By having active conversations around the verification used and also the positioning of brands on news an approach which benefits all, including premium publishers, is achievable.


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