A Brand Safety Conversation, part two

Posted by Brand Safety Institute • Nov 16, 2020 7:45:00 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 Resident, 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 the two discussed how we've gotten to this point in brand safety practice, what brand safety looks like in different facets of the industry, and role, and value, of a professional class of Brand Safety Officers.

Read part one of the Brand Safety Conversation here.

Part two, below, deals with the evolving nature of brand safety practice, offer some of their own, hard-learned,  practical advice for Brand Safety Officers, and takes a closer look at the particular challenge of "fake news" and mis/disinformation.

As Brand Safety Officers become established in the industry, how do they work to create brand safety strategies that are protective, balanced, and flexible?

Desrosiers: As the concept of brand safety becomes more multifaceted, more companies are working through the differences between safety and suitability. Where are the hard lines to draw? For example, never appearing on hate speech, and where are the areas that require some human judgment?  While news stories about challenging subjects are sometimes ok, where those lines are is going to vary brand to brand. Companies that take the time to work through exercises that allow them to define where the lines are, and what kinds of tactics they can employ to protect themselves without being so rigid that their scale or corporate values suffer, will be able to have a more balanced, flexible strategy, and will be able to achieve better outcomes.

An exercise I wish all companies would engage in right away is a review of their data practices. Conversations around data security and privacy will become increasingly prevalent as issues continue to crop up, and will be increasingly important to driving change in our industry. We have increasing regulatory scrutiny and consumer awareness on the one hand, increasing malicious activity by bad actors on the other, and in the middle, numerous companies throughout the supply chain who have under-invested in information security technology and practices, and are trading data that in some cases is not actually hard to tie back to specific individuals.

Jones: Most of the elements of a brand safety strategy are fairly well known - the trick is how to combine these resources to meet your own brand needs. This requires some thought and discussion, particularly around your sense of what content is suitable for your brand. One brand may be youth oriented and comfortable in more edgy content, while another may be squarely focused on family values - the suitability for those two brands could be quite different. What needs to happen next is deciding how you line up all the available tools (and relationships) in the industry to best deliver the quotient of brand safety you seek. Brands must take an active role at setting the right parameters and constantly strive for improvement:

  • How often are you updating lists,
  • do you have the right verification/safety partner for your specific need - have capabilities been reviewed lately?
  • Are they accredited by the MRC on brand safety?
  • Is that partner able to manage CTV effectively?
  • What is your reliance on programmatic partners? Are there too many - or too few?

Ultimately, you are trying to manage a puzzle that nets you enough acceptable impressions, within the context of a budget limitation, that drives your business and positively impacts consumers. It’s a bit of a dance, but one that yields the results you want when you actively manage the pieces.

There has been a lot of conversation this year about exclusion lists and the inadvertent defunding of legitimate news publishers, which has led to positive initiatives like the Local News Safe List, from BSI and the Local Media Consortium. What do you think the next big brand safety conversation will be?

Desrosiers: I’ll be interested to see how the privacy and ad tracking pieces evolve in the public discourse over time, as the browsers evolve their tech (and their messaging around privacy features as differentiators), and as more regulation starts to trickle out. There is awareness among consumers and a general pushback against a somewhat undefined "creepiness", and certainly brands don’t want to get called out in the press for a regulatory action or leaking consumer data - for example, the health apps that were called out in the press a year or two ago - but there is also widespread acceptance of the value proposition of trading data for convenience and "free" services. The potential harm there is just a little more amorphous for consumers, so the risk feels low compared to the benefits. I suspect blowback on a brand for a privacy issue may often be more muted or short-lived. The security piece is, I think, more clear cut for consumers because of the widely acknowledged -- and feared -- risk of identity theft, and the potential damage to a brand may be higher. How does it look for a brand to be called out in the press for losing millions of credit card numbers in a hack? What’s the long term damage look like from something like that?

Jones: There has been much effort in making news inventory more accessible to more advertisers as a tool to help bring greater balance to your set of dependencies. I would encourage all advertisers and agencies to work to make news more inclusive, given the right controls. That said, news choices need to be properly vetted as we are seeing news available in more outlets, news that is polarizing by outlet, making credible news even more attractive. I highlight that as I believe that our next industry focus will likely try to address fake news and misinformation - the likes of which we have never seen before. This is BIG and complicated, but as an industry we have managed to get our arms around most of the other issues - this becomes a big fish for us all.

Perhaps the biggest and most undefined area in brand safety is fake news and misinformation. What are your thoughts on what steps to take to arrive at a strategy in this arena?

Desrosiers: I think it once again comes down to knowing who your partners are. Marketers have been sold a false promise of great scale and cheap cpms in programmatic. There is a kernel of truth there, versus what’s possible buying only at the individual publisher level - there is a natural limit to what your staff can actually get done in a given day - but the risk of buying fake news, misinformation, content farms, fraudulent inventory, etc. etc. etc. is just so high. Again, what kind of content you do and don’t want to appear on, and how you define "misinformation," is going to vary brand by brand. We live in a very divided moment, where major national news publishers are considered misinformation by people who hold opposing viewpoints.

  • Take the time to work through a safety and suitability exercise to determine where the lines are for you,
  • talk to your vendors about your preferences to make sure they are aligned with your priorities and definitions, and
  • spend the time to understand what you’re buying.

Some major marketers are hand curating their site inclusion lists, and are happy with the outcomes. It’s time intensive, but it keeps them in the spaces where they are comfortable. Whatever strategy you decide is right for your business, be sure to bake in a plan to periodically reevaluate it. Your priorities may evolve as the times and news cycles change, and you don’t want your brand safety strategy to fall out of alignment. When done right, brand safety is a living, breathing practice.

Jones: Ah, the big fish... fake news and disinformation.

We are at a place in this nation that we have never seen before. Attitudes that have not shifted in decades have found new ways to make their voices heard - whether harmful and/or having no basis in fact - and its whirling around furiously and making its way into our supply chains. It would be foolhardy to think there is a defensible strategy at this moment in time - but we are conscious, and therefore can begin to make steps in this direction. This is an industry wide discussion and at the center is everyone vetting their sources more critically.

For starters:

  • You exclusion/inclusion list should be a good starting point for having a perspective on fake news and disinformation
  • We need to start a conversation with the major outlets on how to better manage fake accounts and media flowing through them, and tightening the tolerance level for this type of content within the platforms
  • Understand how some of the specialized, more investigative firms can help shine a light on where and how fake news and misinformation is breaching the supply chain
  • Look to how the verification/safety partners can add another level of flagging questionable content in the genre
  • Support good & credible news, so they remain a beacon for truth

No doubt there are other methods and ideas, but I do believe these steps open up the right conversations so that we as an industry can start chipping away at this very large problem.


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, Brand Safety Officer in Residence, Christine Desrosiers, Social Responsibility, Role of the Brand Safety Officer, Louis Jones