Can This Coalition Between Agencies, Brands and Tech Giants Make Our Online World Safer?

Google, Facebook team up with agencies and advertisers for the Global Alliance for Responsible Media

"Partnering up with the very platforms that have essentially created this problem for advertisers…seems counterintuitive," said Matt Ravitz, founder, Sleeping Giants. Getty Images
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

CANNES, France—You’ve seen the play before, but this time around, its cast is a bit more impressive.

Today in Cannes, a group consisting of some of the world’s largest advertisers (Adidas, Mars, Unilever, Mondelez, General Mills, Diageo, GSK, Mastercard, Nestlé, P&G, LVMH, etc.), five major media holding companies (Omnicom, Dentsu, Publicis, IPG and GroupM), a pair of ad-tech companies (Teads and TrustX), two media giants (Verizon and NBCUniversal) and three of the largest tech platforms (Facebook, Google and Twitter) announced a new coalition designed to do the impossible: make the internet a safer place for brands and consumers alike.

The Global Alliance for Responsible Media describes itself as an “unprecedented” coalition of these juggernauts that will regularly meet with the goal of pressing publishers and platforms alike to “develop and deliver against a concrete set of actions, processes and protocols for protecting people and brands.”

"Every single advertiser has to make choices as to where their investment goes."
Isabel Massey, global digital director of marketing, Diageo

As of today, however, those actions are simply marked as forthcoming.

The number of names involved is the most significant aspect of this effort, which builds on the Global Media Charter released by the World Federation of Advertisers during last year’s Cannes festival.

If you want to walk fast, you can go it alone, but if you want to walk far, we do it together,” said Luis Di Como, executive vice president of global media at Unilever. Diageo global digital director of marketing Isabel Massey added that, while this topic has already sparked multiple talks and initiatives in recent years, “we want to have one conversation” involving all relevant industry players.

Advertisers also claim that they are not simply looking out for their own interests.

“We’re looking at this through the lens of consumers,” said Rob Rakowitz, head of global media at Mars and advocate of reforms to the media ecosystem, who described this effort as a matter of “going from reactive to proactive” in order to protect both brand reputation and consumer safety while helping to repair the credibility of the platforms in question.

Even Jason Kint, CEO of publishers trade group Digital Content Next and frequent critic of Google and Facebook, had some mildly optimistic words regarding the fact that the parties with most at stake in this “brand safety” discussion—advertisers and the platforms on which they spend ever-increasing amounts of their digital marketing dollar—have brought it up together.

“I think the advertisers can be commended for forming this alliance,” said Kint regarding the big brands that “seem to be spearheading” the effort. “The parties that have the most global concern by far, which are the tech platforms, were frankly unmanaged in terms of a lot of the toxic garbage that has been documented over the past few years, are at the table too, which is good.”

At the same time, Di Como of Unilever, which has threatened to pull its money from Facebook and YouTube in the past, said he wants to see “real change” beyond what has happened over the past two years, when concerns regarding sexually hateful or misleading content began to reach a boil.

“It’s great that advertisers are starting to wake up to the idea that brand safety is a real and significant issue, and this will be an important step,” said Matt Rivitz, founder of Sleeping Giants, which advocates against advertising’s role in sponsoring hate speech. “But partnering up with the very platforms that have essentially created this problem for advertisers by taking a less than adequate approach to content moderation seems counterintuitive. Time will tell if it works.”

"Your skepticism or perhaps even helplessness is valid."
Rob Rakowitz, head of global media, Mars

The group hasn’t released any policy proposals to avoid getting ahead of itself, Rakowitz told Adweek. He compared the impossible act of moderating the billions of pieces of content uploaded to Facebook and YouTube every day to an endless game of whack-a-mole, saying, “What we want is more hands on the mallet and more cooperation from the platforms.”

At a kickoff event at WPP’s beach, Carolyn Everson, Facebook’s vp of global marketing solutions, said that the coalition was “an easy ‘yes.’ We may have different business objectives, but we can agree on the principle of having safe and secure platforms that people trust [and] feel good about.”

However, Everson also pointed out the mammoth task at hand, saying that “there’s still so much more to do, but I also want to be realistic. That is not a fully solvable problem. We can’t make everything perfectly secure. I can’t guarantee the safety and security of everybody at this beach. And so we need to be realistic about what is going to be as safe and secure as possible.”

When asked whether these platforms could be compelled to make any significant changes in the absence of a massive user exodus, Rakowitz said, “Your skepticism—or perhaps even helplessness—is valid.”

Every single advertiser has to make choices as to where their investment goes,” added Diageo’s Massey, and the purpose of this Alliance is not to pool the brands’ collective monetary leverage and pressure the tech companies. Even a dramatic action like AT&T pulling all spend from YouTube would do little to move the needle, said Kint, because “no single advertiser is material enough.”

Kint also noted that NBCUniversal stands out as the only traditional publisher in the mix, and Rakowitz said the plan is to engage more “omnichannel media players.”

The process will undoubtedly be challenging. At the very least, the matter of whether Facebook and YouTube are media businesses or tech companies no longer seems to be an open question among advertisers. They are both.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.