A Brand Safety Conversation, part one

Posted by Brand Safety Institute • Nov 9, 2020 9:44:34 AM

Earlier this year, the Brand Safety Institute has created the position of Brand Safety Officer in Residence to, "help design and implement its new digital resource library, advance the Brand Safety Officer curriculum, and drive engagement and collaboration with other stakeholders." Former BabyCenter programmatic chief, and BSI Advisory Board member, Christine Desrosiers, was the initial BSO in Residence, and set the standard for the role. 

Now that her six-month Residency is ending, Desrosiers sat down (virtually, of course) with incoming BSO in Residence, longtime agency and 4A's executive Louis Jones, to discuss the past, present, and future of brand safety, and the evolving role of the Brand Safety Officer in the industry.

We've split the conversation into two parts, and edited their comments for clarity and format. In part one, below, the two discuss how we've gotten to this point in brand safety practice, what brand safety looks like in different facets of the industry, and the role, and value, of a professional class of Brand Safety Officers.

Part two will deal with the evolving nature of brand safety practice, some practical advice for Brand Safety Officers, and take a closer look at the particular challenge of "fake news" and mis/disinformation.


Brand safety issues throughout the supply chain have evolved rapidly over the past 5 years. What are the most significant changes you’ve seen?

Louis Jones: Brand Safety as a topic has gone through some fairly significant changes over the last decade - when fraud and malware were initially the concern, followed by invalid traffic concerns. We all rallied around TAG and the industry associations to put some dimension around the issues and some very positive steps we could take to begin to manage this huge area of "loss" for advertisers in a successful way.

In 2016, we would see content adjacencies take center stage as advertisers began to find themselves next to inappropriate content. In my time at the 4As, the agencies decided to:

  • try to take on the adjacency battles via the Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB),
  • worked with the MRC to help set a "floor" for Brand Safety, and
  • worked with key media outlets and the verification/brand safety partners in the marketplace to understand how we might begin to lay out a "suitability framework" that could help brands translate media buys into tolerable ranges of content across the web.

These efforts would later be enhanced by other initiatives in the marketplace - all, in unison, driving for better controls and higher levels of alignment in content choices. It has not been easy, but it has been productive.

Christine Desrosiers: As an industry, we have begun moving away from the idea of "brand safety" representing a small handful of narrow, siloed issues that only one or another part of the supply chain focuses on - for example, brands and keyword exclusions - toward the recognition that we are operating in one ecosystem, that our interests and concerns actually overlap in numerous ways, and we can achieve better outcomes for our businesses and consumers when we find ways to foster understanding and collaboration to protect our brands.

For example, marketers have traditionally thought of malware control as an ad tech and publisher responsibility, but now marketers are seeing blowback from problems such as their campaign creatives getting hijacked by bad actors to trick a user into clicking, or seeing their ads appearing on a page with an ad that is forcing a redirect on a user. Some marketers are now realizing that they, too, can play a role in cleaning up the ecosystem by taking steps to make sure they aren’t funding fraud.

We’re not fully there yet as an industry, but I have seen enough encouraging sparks over the past couple of years to be optimistic that we’re on the path.

Brand safety can take different shapes across the supply chain. What does it look like from each of your perspectives?

Desrosiers: For a publisher, brand safety has a dual meaning - protecting our own brand, and also acting as a steward of our clients' brands. Our focus is on creating a clean, well-lit environment for our users and our clients, free of bots, trolls, and malware. Marketers and ad tech partners are aware of the time and investment in writing, editing, and managing our content, but don’t always realize the amount of effort and investment that goes on behind the scenes to protect ourselves, our partners, and our consumers. We have:

  • teams managing technology that keeps bot traffic out of our inventory and malware attacks at bay,
  • teams managing user-generated content who find and eliminate abusive commenting and posting behavior, and
  • teams managing the ad stack and page code that delivers ads as quickly as possible to ensure high viewability and conversion for clients.

Ultimately, the trust, or lack thereof, that a consumer places in a publisher’s brand is not just the publisher’s priority - that consumer sentiment also impacts the brands of the marketers advertising on the site. Publishers take that responsibility very seriously.

Jones: From the buy side of the equation, nothing is more disconcerting for an agency person then to have to explain how an advertiser’s message appeared next to questionable content. Our perspective has been focused on assurances from media outlets that the content within buys meet certain levels of key criteria.

Within the Brand Safety & Suitability Frameworks, there are roughly a dozen areas of content that need to be actively monitored (using the IAB Tech Lab Taxonomy) for the "treatment" of the categories. Alignment across these categories and across the outlets is somewhat variable, but there is a much wider acknowledgement on how that content is treated within the media. Some media will never make the cut, while others are highly desirable based on the lack of questionable content - it is here where we make use of inclusion and exclusion lists - yet they require monitoring and updating as things change.

The next line of defense are the verification/safety companies - who have established some of their own guidelines and protocols,  but work with the buy side to customize solutions by brand. This is particularly important as we become more reliant on programmatic sources, and OTT/CTV expands rapidly, requiring yet another layer of protections.

We also see the rise of the Brand Safety Officer - at both the advertiser and agency - seeking to put a keener eye on how this is all managed and quantifying the value of the coordinated efforts from a brand perspective.

More and more companies are dedicating staff time and attention on brand safety, and the group of certified Brand Safety Officers is growing. As this practice grows, what does it mean to you to professionalize brand safety practice? What are the expected benefits to companies and brands, and how can you begin to quantify and communicate these benefits to the rest of the company?

Desrosiers: Professionalizing brand safety practice is about recognizing that our world has changed since we first started talking about brand safety several years ago. Brand safety is no longer a simple and narrow tactic of deploying a giant keyword exclusion list on a campaign and hoping for the best. It’s now a multi-dimensional brand management and risk mitigation strategy, with multiple tactics to manage. Professionalizing this practice means getting serious about the resources we put against this, in terms of staff time, attention, training, and ongoing professional development.

The benefits for companies in investing here are two-fold:

  1. avoiding incidents that tarnish our brands (and the tangible and intangible costs that those incidents incur), and
  2. a network effect that will result in reduced friction and better campaign results as companies across the supply chain increasingly speak the same language and operate with shared expectations.

Jones: As all media digitizes, the complexities of brand safety grow. Lots of companies are recognizing the value of knowing the nuances of different outlets and erecting strategies to combat fraud malware, adjacencies, safety partners, etc. The BSO should be the fulcrum for understanding the scale of responses, the thoroughness of planning, and the stewardship of strategies that ensure brands and people are safe from bad players that sit at every level and step of the supply chain. Ultimately, these BSOs will need to be able to communicate to their organizations the value of risk avoidance to a brand and its customers as a consequence of greater positive flow of brand communications through the various channels. How that is quantified and communicated will vary, but the goal will be universal.


Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash


Topics: Brand Safety, Brand Safety Officers, Ad Fraud, Knowing Your Partners, Ad Adjacency, Publishers, Malware, Block lists, Disinformation, Brand Suitability, 4A's, Brand Safety Officer in Residence, Christine Desrosiers, Role of the Brand Safety Officer, Louis Jones