As YouTube Faces Criticism Over Ad Placement, TV Networks Vow Not to Repeat Its Mistakes

NBCUniversal and Sky weigh in at Adobe Summit

YouTube faced mounting criticism this week over brands' ads appearing next to content related to terrorism and racism. Illustration: Dianna McDougall: Source: Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

Television networks are increasingly betting on a future filled with programmatic advertising, and while Google continues to face criticism over where it displays brands’ ads on YouTube, some TV execs say it could remind marketers to seek safe inventory.

It’s been less than a week since YouTube started facing mounting criticism over brands’ ads appearing alongside content related to terrorism and racism, with major advertisers like Havas UK and brands like Verizon and Johnson & Johnson pulling ads until the problem is fixed.

During a discussion about cross-channel advertising today at the Adobe Summit in Las Vegas, several network representatives discussed how they’re approaching programmatic and targeted capabilities across linear and digital video.

When asked what they thought about the situation unfolding between Google and advertisers, some said the tension could help redirect trust to television, which Google has spent the past year comparing itself to both in terms of scale and effectiveness.

“When it comes to programmatic, I think programatic is a double-edged sword,” Denise Colella, svp of ads at NBCUniversal, said when asked about YouTube’s situation. “There is a lot of efficiency and automation to be had, but then there’s also the danger of open marketplaces.”

Earlier this month, NBCUniversal announced it would commit to selling $1 billion in targeted advertising in time for the 2017-2018 season. Colella said NBCUniversal only uses private marketplaces, which provide more control over where ads show up, as opposed to open exchanges where low-quality ads compete to appear alongside low-quality content. She said the key is to understand the balance between safety and efficiency.

Rob McLaughlin, head of digital analytics at British broadcaster Sky, said networks need to collaborate with advertisers, and advertisers need to take ownership of where their content appears and be conscious of the risks. And while there has been much publicity around YouTube, he said the situation is not isolated to Google. He said it can just as easily happen in other one-to-one situations across the internet.

“It reinforces at our executive levels the need to justify continued investment in controls,” McLaughlin said. “Yes, there is the technology to potentially make a lot money by being completely unconstrained with matching content and context, but now we’re seeing the organizational risk. And that gives us justification for investing in the people and processes to improve it.”

Earlier this week, Google published a blog post explaining how it’s working to tweak algorithms to make ads appearing next to unsafe content less likely, and this morning during an interview with Fox Business Network, Google co-founder Eric Schmidt said that while Google can’t guarantee brands’ ads will be safe at all times, it can get better, especially in terms of dealing with terrorist and racist videos as well as fake news.

“What we do is we match ads and the content, but because we source the ads from everywhere, every once in a while, somebody gets underneath the algorithm and they put in something that doesn’t match,” Schmidt told Fox’s Maria Bartiromo. “We’ve had to tighten our policies and actually increase our manual review time, and so I think we’re going to be okay.”

Advertisers that don’t buy media are also watching how YouTube handles the situation. Wunderman chief technology officer Stephan Pretorius thinks Google is taking the issue seriously. And while he believes the company will solve the problem, it’s a reminder of the risks inherent in the digital landscape.

“I think the YouTube problem is a unique problem, and it’s not an agency problem” Pretorius said. “It’s a Google issue that they need to resolve from a content metadata perspective. And it’s obviously a challenging one, given the amount of content that gets generated all the time. To be honest, I think it’s also a scale problem. You can’t just put a lot of people on it.”

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