Havas halts UK ad spend on Google as brand safety assurances fall short

Dive Brief:

  • Havas Worldwide is pulling all of its U.K. advertising spend from Google and Google's YouTube video portal as it seeks to establish a tighter safety net for its brand clients, according to a report in The Guardian. Havas — the world's sixth-largest ad holding group — is the first to blacklist Google in this manner, the publication said.
  • The Guardian reported talks between Google and Havas "broke down" as the former was "unable to provide specific reassurances" in regards to filtering out unsafe content featuring things like hate speech, terrorism or other forms of violence. Google was recently forced to review its ad policies when the U.K. government, along with organizations including the BBC, Transport for London and The Guardian itself, pulled their ads over similar brand safety concerns.

  • Havas U.K.'s brand clients include Domino’s Pizza, Emirates and the BBC, and also major U.K. organizations like Royal Mail and the EDF Energy group. Havas U.K. spends around £500 million — or $620 million — on all of its advertising and £175 million (roughly $217 million) on behalf of its U.K. clients annually, per The Guardian.  

Dive Insight:

Marketers started putting a higher premium on brand safety following reports of fake news and other inflammatory media run rampant last year, but Havas' blacklisting of Google in the U.K. is one of the more dramatic steps taken against the platform in recent memory and is perhaps unprecedented in the marketing industry.

Google is the world's single largest digital advertising platform and eMarketer research suggests it will command 40.7% of all U.S. digital ad revenue this year as its dominance in areas including search and display advertising continues to grow.

Google appears to have responded to the Havas news, albeit without naming the agency directly, in a blog post that acknowledges its content monitoring system is flawed and that some changes might be inbound. 

“[W]ith millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognize that we don't always get it right,” wrote Google U.K. Managing Director Ronan Harris. “In a very small percentage of cases, ads appear against content that violates our monetization policies. We promptly remove the ads in those instances, but we know we can and must do more.”

While Havas might be the first ad holding group to take direct action of this scale against Google, the company is hardly alone in voicing criticism toward the lack of brand safety assurances. A week ago, at the IPA's Festival of British Advertising in London, WPP CEO Martin Sorrell told Harris that Google needs to "step up and take responsibility" for bad media on its platform that endangers brand credibility and image.

"You have to take responsibility for this as a media company," the WPP executive said.

WPP is the world’s largest ad holdings group and it will be interesting to see if it follows Havas in any way. Sorrell also took shots at Facebook, which is the second largest digital ad platform behind Google. 

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