Can GroupM Really Take a Bite Out of Crime?

Largest digital spender hopes others follow suit

Legislation aimed at shutting down Web sites that steal content may be stalled in Congress , but that doesn't mean those sites can breathe easy. Hoping to at least mortally wound such sites, GroupM has compiled a black list of 2,000 websites that will be cut off from the ad dollars of some of the nation's biggest digital advertisers, like Ford, AT&T, Unilever, Colgate, and Dell.

GroupM could not put a dollar figure on just how much ad spending would no longer flow from its clients to those rogue sites—indeed, it can't actually prove that its clients' advertising has ever appeared on those sites, and at least some of the pages on the list either don't carry advertising at all or simply no longer exist. But as the largest global digital spender (estimated at $6 billion with U.S. at about $4 billion), it's at least setting a precedent.

"We want to make sure those sites get as little funding as possible," said John Montgomery, COO for GroupM Interaction. "It's difficult for us to tell how many of our ads appeared on pirated sites—it's the ad networks and exchanges where we don't have the visibility—but our objective is to make sure it won't in the future."

And, of course, in addition to making itself look like a good citizen, GroupM's decision also makes good business sense for an ad shop looking to preserve its company's brands, many of which also create their own content. (And many of which might not be happy about spending any money, no matter how little, on the ocllection of spammy, low-traffic sites included in the blacklist.)  "Our advertisers are all blue chip advertisers and would not want their advertising to appear on illegal sites. The reason we all have great jobs is because there is great content on the Internet. When ads support pirates sites, it doesn't contribute in any way to new content being created," Montgomery said.

To make sure rogue sites are cut off from GroupM buys, including those made through ad networks and ad exchanges, the list is now incorporated into GroupM's insertion order. Montgomery said he would be "surprised" if any of the company's ad partners defied the order. But as a second line of defense, GroupM works with two verification services, DoubleVerify and AdSafe Media, which would notify GroupM of any violations of its request.

GroupM took about three months to put the entire program together. The list was compiled based on discussions with content clients, such as Universal Music, and Summit Entertainment, companies that have been working to get legislation passed on the Capitol Hill. Plans are to update at least every quarter, to catch sites that "domain hop."

Those working to get legislation passed in Congress appreciate the private assist. "We applaud GroupM's focus on eliminating economic support for sites that profit from stolen content, and we strongly support the goal of establishing the broadband Internet as a driver of legitimate commerce and job creation in the 21st century," said Rick Cotton, general counsel for NBCUniversal, who has been lobbying hard for legislation.