It's Time to Hire a Chief Brand Safety Officer

Bank of America leads by example toward reputation preservation

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Earlier this week, Bank of America became the first major company to announce that it had appointed a brand safety officer to ensure a positive customer experience and protect the firm’s reputation online.

If you’ve been following the conversation around brand safety in the digital ad space, this news should come as no surprise. Despite the growing number of brands who have been vocal about the issue, the unfortunate truth is that the digital advertising ecosystem has failed to create a truly brand-safe environment. In a survey our company published in late 2017, 75 percent of brands reported experiencing at least one unsafe exposure in the preceding 12 months, but just 26 percent said they had started to employ brand safety solutions during the previous two years.

Given how much harm can be caused by a single unsafe exposure, it’s only reasonable that a brand would choose to take its digital safety into its own hands. More succinctly, Bank of America may be the first Fortune 100 company to appoint a brand safety officer, but it certainly won’t be the last.

“Marketers spend years and years, and millions, if not billions, of dollars to elevate a brand,” Association of National Advertisers CEO Bob Liodice told us when we published our report. “In one fell swoop, that reputation, that equity, that loyalty can be damaged or severely disrupted.”

Plenty of attention, but few solutions

Brand safety has been an ongoing topic of conversation between brands, agencies, publishers and technology vendors, but no one party has stepped up to own the problem entirely. In fact, brand safety threats have only become more pronounced over the past several years.

For starters, the rise of visual content has posed a new technology challenge to firms hoping to address the issue. Since many brand safety providers rely on semantic text analysis to determine whether a page is safe to advertise on, an uptick in video consumption means that there’s more potentially unsafe content flying under the radar.

75 percent of brands reported experiencing at least one unsafe exposure in the preceding 12 months.

Further, the growth of fake news has created an entirely new kind of brand safety problem. Whereas advertisers were once solely concerned with pornography, gambling and other kinds of illicit content, they must now also grapple with news content that promotes hate speech and harmful conspiracies.

With so many threats to exterminate, a chief brand safety officer is a no-brainer for coordinating a company’s efforts.

“In this environment, brand safety and security cannot be a collateral duty of everyone and a responsibility of no one,” said Dallas Lawrence, svp corporate communications at global advertising exchange OpenX. “Quality and safety need to be baked in from the beginning, with brands empowered to make systemic changes to how they do business and who they partner with.”

The path forward for brand safety enforcement

Though it’s unclear exactly what shape this new role will take, the way I see it is that a chief brand safety officer should have at least three key responsibilities:

  1. Articulating a brand safety strategy.

Each brand is unique, and the chief brand safety officer will have to create a game plan that is aligned with the firm’s industry, audience and internal culture. A piece of content seen as brand safe in New York City might be viewed differently in Dallas.

  1. Ensuring that vendors and agencies follow clear brand protocols.

Even with a brand safety officer, the size of the modern marketing operation requires an all-hands-on-deck enforcement operation. The brand safety chief will need to make sure that partner organizations are providing full transparency into these efforts. 

  1. Educating other brand stakeholders.

Brand safety and online advertising are generally complex. It will be up to the chief brand safety officer to help coworkers and executives understand key safety tools, such as publisher whitelisting and blacklisting, negative keyword lists and image recognition.

Above all else, appointing a chief brand safety officer should assure a company’s investors, customers and employees that there is someone ultimately responsible for protecting the brand’s hard-won reputation.

Bank of America has taken a bold step in making this promise to the public, and I look forward to seeing other prominent brands follow in its footsteps.

“If you remove the really bad stuff, brand safety is highly subjective on a brand-by-brand basis,” said Steve Katelman, evp, global digital partnerships at the digital agency Annalect. “Establishing a grand truth, depending on what the brand’s expectations are, is quite difficult. It makes total sense to have a chief brand safety officer who understands a brand in and out and can establish a set of ground rules.”