Frustrated With Ads Appearing Next to Offensive Content, Havas Pulls U.K. Spending From Google and YouTube

The British government is dropping out too

Havas Worldwide is pulling all of its client spending from ads on Google and YouTube in the UK. Getty
Headshot of Marty Swant

Havas is pulling all spending from Google and YouTube in the United Kingdom, citing the desire to have more control of its inventory in hopes of keeping brands away from inappropriate or offensive content.

According to a report in The Guardian, the French advertising giant’s decision came after talks broke down related to Google’s inability to “provide specific reassurances” related to where video and display ads appear. The report cites content showing up in YouTube alongside videos of white nationalists and terrorists.

The news about Havas—which spends around 175 million euros annually on digital advertising clients in the U.K.—comes alongside a report that the British government and other organizations also pulled their ads from the tech giant.

In a tweet this afternoon, Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré said he had not heard of the UK division’s decision. (On Friday afternoon, the French newspaper Le Figaro quoted Bolloré calling the move “extreme,” adding that the agency will continue negotiations with Google.)

Google declined to comment on specific partnerships, but in a blog post published today, Google said it’s working to give more protection and control to agencies and brands about where their advertisements appear while admitting that the company “doesn’t always get it right.”

“From our founding days at Google, our mission has always been to make information universally accessible and useful,” wrote Google UK Managing Director Ronan Harris. “We believe strongly in the freedom of speech and expression on the web—even when that means we don’t agree with the views expressed.”

In January, Google reported that in 2016 it removed nearly 2 billion “bad ads” from its systems, which the company said included self-clicking and fraudulent ads or promotions for illegal products. According to Google’s policies listed on its website, “inappropriate content” includes anything related to bullying, intimidation or racial discrimination.

Advertiser concerns over Google-hosted content certainly aren’t unique to the U.K. In February, YouTube’s most popular star, Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, was dropped by Disney’s Maker Studios and removed from the Google Preferred ad program after complaints about his recent videos that made light of the Holocaust.

In a statement this afternoon, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell also criticized Google and its rival, Facebook. (According to some estimates, Google and Facebook together receive around 85 percent of every new digital advertising dollar.)

“We have always said Google, Facebook and others are media companies and have the same responsibilities as any other media company,” Sorrell said in a statement emailed to Adweek. “They cannot masquerade as technology companies, particularly when they place advertisements. GroupM, which has led or supported every industry initiative to raise standards in the digital media supply chain, is talking to the digital media owners at the highest levels to encourage them to find answers to these brand safety issues.”

Earlier today, WPP-owned GroupM emailed clients about Havas UK’s decision to pull funds from Google, urging marketers to use brand safety tools and to only use inventory partners that implement them.

“YouTube is un-curated,” according to a copy of the email obtained by Adweek. “It deploys brand safety technology but it is not infallible. The same issues exist in terms of Google display network (GDN). We have communicated at the highest levels with Google and are working toward a solution in respect of un-curated content, if there is one.

Publishers are also taking note. Today, News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson reiterated the importance of protecting brands from being damaged by appearing next to offensive content—a rebuke of platforms that some publishers say should more evenly split advertising revenue with media organizations creating content.

“Ad fraud is being perpetrated ad nauseam,” Thomson said in a statement. “It is rife throughout the digital world, and is facilitated by some ad agencies, which themselves make money from artificial audiences and pretend page views. Advertisers need to go back to basics to protect their brands from serious damage and to protect themselves from being involved in potentially criminal activity, whether it be supporting extremist groups or funding hardcore pornography.”

UPDATE: On Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for Havas confirmed the decision, explaining that the move is more of “short pause” than an indefinite stop.

“The decision of our UK team to pause activity with our partner Google is a temporary move made by the local team on behalf of our UK clients and their specific needs,” the spokesperson said in an email to Adweek. “The Havas Group will not be undertaking such measures on a global basis. We are working with Google to resolve the issues so that we can return to using this valuable platform in the UK.”

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.