Post-Mortem: Thoughts on the IAB's Annual Leadership Meeting

Posted by Neal Thurman • Feb 16, 2022 9:59:22 AM

“How great is it to be back together in person?”

If I had to summarize the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting (ALM) event in one sentence, that would have to be it. Every speaker worked that into the early stages of their presentation and it felt like every individual conversation, whether with a long-standing colleague or someone I’d never met before, took that turn eventually. Unfortunately, the ubiquity of that theme doesn’t really give much insight into how ALM reflected the priorities of the industry in the early days of 2022. In my attempt to fill that gap, here are my thoughts on the brand safety-related themes that I observed, overheard, and participated in discussing:

Brand Safety is SO 2020. Suitability is where the conversation is in 2022.
The scope of what we consider brand safety has continued to grow over the past two years. What started as fairly straight-forward efforts to protect media buys and avoid placement next to unquestionably objectionable content has morphed significantly. We’ve spent time discussing the evolution of brand safety in a few forums. At ALM, BSI participated in two sessions – an in-person Town Hall and a pre-recorded panel – and the topic that spawned some excellent conversations all came back to subjective brand suitability rather than objective brand safety.

Definition. The suitability conversation started at the most basic level with a discussion of how to differentiate suitability from safety. For those who weren’t there for the conversation, there seemed to be general agreement that suitability had evolved to describe the reflection of a brand’s values as they apply to (digital) advertising activities. What page-level content do you want to avoid? What domains or creators might you want to avoid associating yourself with based not on a specific article or video but rather to avoid supporting that organization or person? Conversely, what domains or creators might you want to lean in on as a reflection of your commitment (e.g., news, minority-owned properties)?

Scale. Beyond the conversation at ALM, there has been a lot of excellent conversation in the industry about marketers becoming more intentional in their digital advertising activities. Whether a particular marketer is focusing on buying from diverse sources, supporting journalism, defunding spreaders of misinformation or hate speech, or other of their corporate values, a consistent theme was the challenge of turning intent into action. One of my takeaways from discussions leading up to and including ALM events is that 2022 is going to be a year focused on building paths to scale in an environment where marketers are signaling that they intend to be more selective with the inventory they purchase. This will take time. It will take experimentation. There will be challenges. Some will be frustrated that marketers aren’t able to “walk the talk” as quickly as they talk it. It is my hope that the industry will take up the challenge and that BSI will be able to share some of those promising practices this year where experimentation begins to turn into best practice.

Aligning to the Suitability Framework. The Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) has taken up the baton of managing an industry framework that helps define a brand safety floor and a suitability framework that marketers can use to tune their preferences when it comes to immediate adjacency. One of the purposes behind doing this is to give platforms and publishers a common language as they create signals for buyers. It will absolutely take time for platforms and publishers to develop these signals and for intermediaries to be ready to expose them in cases where relationships are indirect. While this work is going on, there is work to be done on the buy side to translate corporate and brand values into choices on the suitability framework. The first step in this process is spending time with the framework and really understanding the nuances between the various levels of tolerance for the categories of content that make up the framework. It is easy for almost all brands to agree that they don’t want to appear next to an article extolling the virtues of illegal drug use. It is harder to make the same decision about being the mid-roll ad in an educational video warning about the perils of illegal drug use. It is going to take time and iteration before the buy side is comfortable using the relative scalpel of the suitability framework rather than just avoiding content by topic covered and keeping in mind the nuance of the context that the topic appears in.

Two huge topics in flux
Two of the hot button issues during ALM were privacy and measurement. I group these two together because of the state of flux they found themselves in as we congregated in Lower Manhattan.

Privacy. It seems like privacy has been in flux forever. Some legislative bodies (e.g., the EU, California) have created regulations. Fewer have started issuing rulings based on those regulations. This month brought a major tremor in this landscape with the Belgian DPA ruling that the IAB Europe Consent Framework is not, as currently constituted, compliant with GDPR. This ruling is hardly the final word on the topic, even in Europe, so it is difficult to take much from the discussions. Throw in Google’s updates to their vision of a cookieless open web and it seems that we aren’t much closer to knowing how to direct our privacy efforts than we were before the ruling.

Measurement. Another topic relevant to the job of a Brand Safety Officer that is in massive flux is measurement. The proliferation of ad-supported channels (e.g., platforms, CTV, apps, games) has forced the industry to think about how it considers measurement in a way that it hasn’t before. There are more gatekeepers sitting between a consolidated view of effectiveness and, as with suitability, it will take time for the industry to build the connectivity necessary to arrive at a meaningful approximation of cross-media measurement. It is almost as though the industry is rebuilding the measurement plumbing and even the most senior executives at legacy measurement giants like Nielsen and Comscore disagree to some extent on how that is likely to come together.

A personal highlight
I’ll end my summary on a personal highlight. No, I don’t mean how great it was to see colleagues and friends in person again although that was fantastic. With the rising profile of the concept of the Metaverse, the IAB brought in Neal Stephenson, the science fiction author who coined the phrase in the early ‘90s. It is rare enough that I get to meet someone named “Neal” who spells it the same way I do. As an added bonus, Neal Stephenson has been one of my favorite authors for about 25 years. I have nine of his novels on my bookshelf (yes, actual books!) and the rest on my Kindle. I even used one of them (Diamond Age) as the basis of a job interview with a non-profit for whom the logical extension of their mission was described perfectly in the book. I got the job but we didn’t quite make it to that logical extension. It was interesting to hear his thoughts on how some of the topics he wrote about years ago are coming to fruition or may soon come to fruition. It was even better to have a chance to have a brief conversation with him after the session and get my 20+ year old copy of Snow Crash signed.

I suspect I lost most of you during that last section but for those of you who made it to the end, I hope you enjoyed this summary of the sessions and conversations I was privy to at IAB’s ALM. Look for BSI to continue to cover all of these themes as they continue to emerge in 2022 and beyond.

Topics: Brand Safety, Privacy, Brand Suitability, measurement, IAB, ALM