Havas U.S. Chief Has Had It With Clients’ Egos and Politics Driving Brand Safety Complaints

One exec was unhappy about an ad on BillOReilly.com

Brand safety and politics are causing friction between agencies and brands.
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CANNES, France—Havas U.S. chairman and CEO Paul Marobella said at a Cannes panel here today that clients’ tough questions about brand safety are sometimes more about their egos than advertising.

“I recently got a phone call from one of the CEOs of one of the brands that we represent, and he was not happy with me,” he said. “One of his display ads showed up on BillOReilly.com. It isn’t necessarily extremist content. What starts to happen to us is as the media partners—we not only have to work with technology partners and publishers to understand what’s good content, but now we have the CEO and CMO [and need] to understand what’s extreme content to them.”

The anecdote speaks to both the complexities involved in programmatic advertising and the increasing friction between agencies and clients to define brand safety, which often varies on a case-by-case basis. It also speaks to an unusually politically-heated world following last year’s Brexit and election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Marobella partly blamed “fringe blogs” that call out specific websites where marketers’ ads are running.

“He was an extreme liberal, and he was really upset that his ad showed up on BillOReilly.com and somebody wrote about it,” Marobella said. “So, the trolls of people that are writing about trying to expose brands that have adjacencies to some content on the outside of the bell curve has forced the issues of the egos of the CEO and CMOs because of the negative press.”

When asked to clarify which sites he considered to be trolls—and if he was referring to journalists—by the panel’s moderator Bob Safian, editor of Fast Company, Marobella said it “wasn’t a mainstream publication, it was a fringe blog that had an agenda.”

Then a reporter referenced Sleeping Giants, the anonymous group that takes screenshots of brands’ ads running next to offensive content. Marobella said he couldn’t remember the name of the organization that called out his client’s advertisement but said that it may have been another group similar to Sleeping Giants.

“He was afraid that he was going to show up in Google Alerts, his board was going to see it and he was more worried about his ego than he was necessarily worried about it from the brand perspective,” Marobella said. “My concern with it is that he was about to cocoon. He was going to pull all budget, stop it and go back to traditional platforms.”

Marobella spoke on a small panel hosted by the International Advertising Association (IAA) with executives from Twitter and Flipboard. The unnamed CEO client was evidently unhappy after he realized that his ads were running on Bill O’Reilly’s site during the former Fox News host’s harassment case, which involved 50 brands pulling their TV ads.

Egos aside, their exchange brings up another question: How do agencies determine whether something is safe when brand values vary wildly from marketer to marketer? And how much should personal beliefs factor into a brand’s decision?

“Another CEO could have called me and said, ‘How dare you run an ad on MSNBC?’” Marobella said, referencing that network’s liberal slant.

Usually, vetting of extreme content is taken care of at the planning stage of a media buy when the agency will blacklist sites that don’t align with brands, Marobella said. Overall, he said that he’s noticed brands asking for more direct relationships but also admitted that frequency and reach—which programmatic advertising provides—still need to be included.

“The pressure to perform and drive results has turned on us,” he said. “The pressure that we’re seeing every day from our clients—and CMOs are seeing from their CEOs and from their board—has forced us to automate the process, which has put us in a difficult situation.”

Gabriella Schwarz, Flipboard’s managing editor, added, “Extremism is in the eye of the beholder. People expressing their opinions have always existed but now you can much more easily share those ideas and share that content—that’s great in a lot of ways and it also has a downside.”

In another example talked about later on in the panel, Marobella questioned artificial intelligence-aided media buying, which uses algorithms and technology instead of people to determine where and when ads run.

“We’ve met with some [companies], and when you ask them, ‘OK, so, you have a $50 million programmatic buy, [and] we might have 10 or 12 traders and buyers working on that. How many do you need?’” Marobella said. The answer is often one or two people. “I think you have to have human intervention as part of it.”

Melissa Barnes, global head of key accounts at Twitter, added that brand safety is increasingly an issue advertisers are asking for and mentioned the site’s video work as an example. When Twitter launched premium video, the company cut down the list of content providers that would first get access to the inventory from 1,000 to 200.

“There was this roundtable discussion, and ultimately [we] cut it down to a little bit more than 200 because we wanted to make sure that the group that first went out were at the highest level, the most premium caliber,” she said. “Even then, brands had the opportunity to determine which partners they’re going to allow for their ads to run content against.”