Publishers and Media Buyers Seek Greater Transparency in Brand Safety Measures

A turbulent year has challenged the industry

Illustration of a fire
First-party data tools built in anticipation of consumer privacy protection laws are now being adapted to the minefields around Covid-19 and the expansive calls for racial justice. Enis Aksoy/Getty Images

Advertisers are always conscious of brand safety. But a pandemic and civil rights movement have brought a new sense of urgency to the issues of ad placement.

To meet the challenges of the moment, publishers and media buyers are adopting new data tools designed to ensure greater brand safety. Still, the potential analytics cures threaten to change the way ads are bought and sold. At bottom, publishers and media buyers express hope that the spring health emergency and summer of protest will prompt both sides to have franker conversations about advertisers’ needs and publishers’ solutions—and what each side can reasonably provide. 

“The principles of brand safety haven’t changed, but the ability to demand greater transparency has,” said Andrew Goode, evp, head of biddable media, North America at Havas Media. “Media organizations should be demanding and expecting greater transparency from their supply chain.”

First-party data tools built in anticipation of consumer privacy protection laws are now being adapted to the minefields around Covid-19 and the expansive calls for racial justice. Analytics-based protections may help brands feel more comfortable advertising in hard news environments. If marketers can be convinced data can solve their safety dilemma, that could throw a much-needed lifeline to the news industry while maximizing brands’ access to motivated and interested consumers.

Case in point: The spring news cycle proved that overly aggressive keyword blocklists can be a lose-lose. Publishers saw dramatically increased traffic and engagement from people eager for news updates. But advertisers who used aggressive keyword blocking to avoid appearing near news content lost out on reaching those record audiences.

As spring turned to summer, the tension between media organizations and ad buyers came to a head. Publishers saw a drop in advertising support from partners who didn’t want to see their ads beside coronavirus coverage. Even those who had readers with intense interest about Covid-19 experienced CPMs down an average of 16% in Q1, according to the IAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“Every advertiser defines their comfort level with news investment as it pertains to brand suitability,” said Emily Healy, director, digital standards at Publicis Media Exchange (PMX). Healy works with partners to use advanced tools so ads are only delivered on news that is appropriately contextual.


What’s the Solution?

Media organizations and agencies have created tools to address brand safety in 2020.

Vox Media, for instance, now offers a self-serve ad solution for marketers in the form of Concert, its proprietary ad technology. Conceived as a publisher marketplace intended to reach the Vox network’s audience safely and at scale, Concert also includes placements on local properties such as The Boston Globe and conglomerates like NBCUniversal.

It’s a promising example of how a media company can take more control of its valuable first-party data to create so-called brand-safe scenarios. By demonstrating a deeper knowledge of its audience in its own right, media companies can better guard their own environments to deliver a quality advertising experience for marketers and audiences.


“By aligning with the news during these unprecedented times, marketers can help reduce misinformation, promote truth through their messages and build credibility that can last long after this turbulent time,” Healy said.

Fast Solutions

The crush of breaking news upended everything from newsgathering to product development to client relationships. Publishers needed to quickly tell advertisers how they were addressing brand safety, and advertisers had to abruptly change their own messaging. Allison Murphy, svp, advertising innovation at The New York Times, told Adweek at its annual NexTech event in July that advertisers are asking how to drive greater audience reach and brand safety.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@SaraJerde sara.jerde@adweek.com Sara Jerde is publishing editor at Adweek, where she covers traditional and digital publishers’ business models. She also oversees political coverage ahead of the 2020 election.
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