The economic impact of Covid-19 has been profound, characterized by pullbacks in ad spend with the extent of the uncertainty characterized by bailouts, layoffs and pay cuts.
For publishers, the pain has been particularly acute, partly through ad tech’s ability for buyers to automatically prevent ads being served next to content discussing the global pandemic, which is arguably the news item to set the agenda for the decade to come. This is a process popularly known in ad-tech circles as keyword blocking, or blacklisting, a phenomena news organizations are quick to complain about.
The reason many marketers at blue-chip outfits employ such tactics is to avoid news items they fear may divide audiences since negativity is not the domain of most mainstream brands.
Publishers impacted by a double-dose of caution
While the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 on every aspect of society has sent media consumption through the roof, ad spend simply hasn’t followed through. The overall impact of the ensuing pandemic was made clear earlier this week in the IAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Q1 ad spend study, which found that cost per impressions (CPMs) were down 16% on average, with total U.S. digital spend for the period reaching $31.4 billion.
New studies specifically around programmatic trading, plus testimony from industry sources, indicate the negative impact of Covid-19-related keyword blacklisting is beginning to subside.
The extent of keyword blacklisting became particularly acute, as governments across the Western world issued shelter-at-home orders. Our sources in the publishing world accuse marketing teams of hypocrisy. Speaking earlier with Adweek, one source who requested anonymity due to their company’s PR policies, griped, “You have a lot of these ‘purpose-driven’ marketers tweeting about their brand purpose and pulling money from publishers while at the same time saying they want this [Covid-19] coverage to be free and accessible.”
Content verification companies, which provide software to enable blacklisting, also drew the ire of critics. Companies such as Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify have been accused of starving quality news sources of much-needed revenue in a time of crisis. And after much fingerpointing, content verification providers have been eager to be seen as advising against blacklisting carte blanche.
Tread carefully, but don’t hide
Media buying giant Omnicom Media Group (OMG) published a report last month that found overall CPMs for display ads that were bought and sold programmatically were down 40% between mid-March and mid-April.
Several sources told Adweek this was the result of simple market dynamics of supply and demand during the early stages of the pandemic, with green shoots of recovery starting to emerge.
The sharp contraction in media spend from mid-March, as marketing departments pressed pause on spend amid the economic maelstrom, were met with an overabundance of inventory supply as a result of increased audience demand for reliable news sources. Keyword blocking only served to compound the issue.
During the publishers’ recent Q1 earnings call, News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson, noted, “Gradually, that problem has diminished. We are noticing that the amount of advertising we’re getting is matching, to some extent, the significant increases in traffic across The Wall Street Journal and MarketWatch.”
Meanwhile, Ben Hovaness, managing director, marketplace intelligence at OMG and co-author of last month’s report, delved deeper into the dynamics of the report and noted that CPMs for news content were more resilient over the entire reporting period.
“Intuitively that might seem odd because news sites have seen enormous traffic increases. The reason behind it is the brand safety filtering artificially constraining the supply that buyers are bidding against,” he claimed. “That naturally drives up prices on the remaining news inventory that makes it past the brand safety filters.”
In fact, media agencies from the industry’s major holding groups are beginning to recommend programmatic buys against news items as an opportunity. Sources also noted the presence of contextual and semantic solutions that can attempt to thread the needle between blunt blocking and appropriately messaging consumers in legitimate news environments.
Andrew Goode, evp and head of biddable media at Havas Media, told Adweek that as much as 80% of campaigns utilized Covid-19-related keyword blocking to avoid negative association at the outset of the crisis.
“We found in some cases up to 20% of inventory was being blocked. … For one client, 26% of that blocked content was deemed to be brand safe—that is, presumably premium content—however, it is still a minority,” he said, noting that while this is a blunt approach, it is effective.
During the intervening period, he has noted some softening of clients’ stances toward blocking, even if it is a minority of clients so far. “Where we have seen clients accept a more moderate contextual approach, it is to allow content tangential to core news—cooking, workout, working from quarantine—content that exudes a positive image,” explained Goode.
“Tread carefully, but don’t hide,” concluded Hovaness, along with his fellow report authors.
A much-needed catalyst?
The anonymous sell-side source from earlier echoed similar observations to Goode that “the corner has not yet been turned.” They casually observed that programmatic yield was still “about 25% down from normal,” but noted that progressive conversations had taken place over the last number of weeks.
“This [crisis] has exacerbated an issue that has existed in our industry for a long time, which is that the buy- and the sell-sides have not been talking closely [enough] over the past 10 years,” added the source. “So what ends up happening is they rely on middlemen [content verification providers, in this instance] to fix issues and don’t actually come to the source to figure out what is the best way to resolve it.”
Josh Stinchcomb, global CRO of The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s Group, separately told Adweek that the Covid-19 crisis has given the industry an opportunity to rethink brand safety.
Per Stinchcomb, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to keyword blacklisting, and the buy-side of the industry is beginning to respond to overtures to address the historic issues of blacklists. “You’re beginning to see almost two versions of blacklists, one for the premium, legitimate web and one for people that are operating a little more broadly,” he said.
“I don’t want to say people are going to be less concerned with their brand being in safe environments; I think they’re going to have a more expansive, nuanced view of what is safe and suitable,” Stinchcomb continued. “So that may end up being sort of a silver lining of this crisis, that it sort of put this conversation on the front burner.”
In the run-up to its flagship annual gathering, industry trade body IAB proposed discussions to “rebuild the industry from the ground up,” primarily in anticipation of the decline of the third-party cookie. That was in mid-February, just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic became an inescapable news story—escapable only to advertisers and media buyers that didn’t want to go near it, that is.