Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Matthew Chappell, a partner at Gain Theory.
Through Q1 2017, the major talking point in marketing, especially in the U.S. and U.K., was brand safety. This is a challenge which has existed for years, but two events caused a brighter light to be shone on the issue.
First, Marc Pritchard of P&G called for more transparency in media buying, honestly admitting that he did not know where and how some of his advertising was being used. Second, a front page on the Times, a U.K. newspaper, revealed that some of Britain's top brands were being seen alongside unsafe often highly explicit and violent content, setting off a chain reaction of brands boycotting platforms like YouTube.
Since then, as we would expect from marketers, there has been a lot of chatter. But is online brand safety the only issue here?
The short answer is no. The main issues in digital marketing are still viewability, robots and bad measurement, all of which have their roots in short-termism. Here’s why:
Let’s consider, for a moment, the type of people who would be consuming unsafe content for brands. There's an argument that frequent viewers of this kind of stuff are beyond reproach to start with; if they already have such a low opinion of themselves, then who really cares what they think about a Jaguar XJ or Head and Shoulders anti-dandruff shampoo?
However, what is true is that this advertising is wasted, because if you think they're contemptible enough to not care for their opinion, then you shouldn't be advertising to them in the first place.
So this media buying goes into the waste basket, alongside non- or barely-viewed videos or display ads.
As an aside, let’s take a second example. Let's say a German discounter takes out a full-page ad in a leading right-wing tabloid newspaper, which goes directly opposite a Brexit polemic. Suddenly, a 2 million-strong group of people will associate, consciously or unconsciously, this company which is not from Britain with the very closed-ranks Britishness of the Brexit tribe.
Which is more damaging to a brand? Two million people or a single loser?
But what does this have to do with short-termism? Short term KPIs, such as conversions, or clicks, or impressions or reach, can easily, and badly, be achieved with a spray and pray approach. This kind of approach often results in low levels of viewability and an unsafe environment — making it tricky to deal with.
A lot of companies use white or black lists — the difference being that white lists aggregate sites on which you can advertise; blacklists, conversely, identify which sites should be avoided. The challenge for blacklists is that bad sites continue to proliferate and, for whitelists, there will be some sites previously labeled safe which suddenly become unsafe due to some regretful content. Keeping both lists up to date can be a Sisyphean task.
And even if the buying is against a specific audience, be it demographic or behavioral, showing no care for which sites the content ends up on, or where on that site it exists (i.e. if it’s viewable or not), is going to get you into trouble.
The bigger picture
This is why brands should focus beyond short-term, easily measurable metrics, and into the complex but ultimately more rewarding world of long-term payback. Remember, not everything that can be counted counts.
The best brands are those which are salient, different, and meaningful; the best brands outperform the market. No brands achieved salience, difference or meaning by having un-viewed or bot-viewed advertising, or by being in unsafe environments.
The real concern for advertisers should be about how to change hearts and minds of consumers by telling a great story to the right audience. Brand safety is only one part of the puzzle, and when advertisers are trying to measure payback, they need to look at the whole picture.