What Role Do Ethics Play in Media Planning And Buying?

Implementing the right standards and processes for your organization

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As an industry, we have recently made a concerted effort to begin placing more ethical media with brands and agencies exploring ways to reduce our carbon footprint and increase investments in BIPOC-owned media partners. While all progress is progress, we are still largely turning a blind eye to the digital and social media partners that have enabled people to perpetrate real harm on those we care about. We spend an astounding $600B annually on digital and social media; that is no chump change and comes with real responsibility.

There have been previous efforts by advertisers to vocalize their support to reform digital and social media by rolling back their media spend, most notably the efforts of Sleeping Giants in 2018 and Stop Hate UK. However, most of these movements involved temporary punitive damages and were largely performative. I believe there is a path forward to ethically evaluate media partners and still make marketing decisions that prioritize key business outcomes.

It all starts with realizing that these problems will not be solved overnight, but are too significant to ignore anymore. They require consistent, thoughtful and data-informed partnerships between media owners, media agencies and large advertisers.

Build an ethical framework for your organization

Whether you are a media agency that plans and buys media on behalf of clients or an in-house media team at a brand, your organization is unique and requires the development of a bespoke ethical framework that aligns with the company’s appetite to reduce harm and the methods used to place your media. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this and its complexity cannot be overstated.

Agencies and brands can tackle these types of challenges by breaking them into smaller decisions that are informed by facts and data. I recommend building a framework (similar to the one below) and evaluating one partner.


How to use the framework

We need to face the facts by quantifying and qualifying the harm. The best way to tackle these types of difficult conversations with your key decision-makers is to use facts to drive the decisions.

Face the facts

The first step in the process is to determine how harmful the media partner is.

I would gauge this based on whether they have been known to cause or amplify significant societal harm. Third-party research, government or legal proceedings and/or nonprofit organizations have found that some media platforms can be conclusively linked to inciting violence, hate speech, mis/dis information, dismantling governments, suicide, mental health struggles, the sale of illegal or deadly drugs, sex trafficking, gun violence and aiding foreign adversaries.

We also need to fully understand who is being harmed by the partner and how those people are related to our business and our values. Are some of the people harmed by the media partner your customers and employees? Are there other groups of people such as kids, elderly or historically underserved communities being significantly harmed?

An understanding of who specifically is being harmed should be a key input into your evaluation of the partner and used to facilitate future discussions.

Determine the feasibility of reducing the platform’s harm

This is where we have failed as an industry. Use facts to establish accountability. This is the step in the framework that is most critical for producing long-term results and avoiding the short-term response that resulted from previous attempts.

We simply cannot take the word of the media partner regarding their culpability or the effectiveness of their remedial actions. There have been many situations in the last few weeks alone that show the lengths that some media partners will go to avoid accountability and protect the status quo. Do the research—use resources made available through reputable news outlets, public records, academic journals, court transcripts, government hearings and research published by non-profits and NGOs.

Use the results of your research to determine if the partner can eradicate the harm themselves, what methods are available to them and if they have previously taken responsibility.

Mitigate negative business impact

Establish alternative viable media plans. As media buyers, it is our job to ensure that we are driving media efficiency and effectiveness with every dollar spent. Some of the social and digital media platforms are so successful at driving positive business outcomes that it is hard to imagine any viable alternative.

This is where audience-based buying and new media channels provide a huge opportunity. Only you and your organization can determine which channels to test and learn as alternatives, but they could include: RMNs, influencers, programmatic, digital OOH, audio/podcasts, CTV, traditional offline media and many others.

Be realistic about the risks and set clear media KPIs to achieve when using alternative channels. In discussions with your organization’s leadership, be completely upfront about the results of your research into the partner’s harm and who is being harmed.

Taking action

Engage with the media partner by focusing on the 3 P’s: Partnership, Proof and Punitive Response:

  • Partnership: Begin with a dispassionate conversation with the partner that is based upon the facts you collected while using your organization’s ethical framework. This should be a conversation between your brand or agency’s leadership and the partner’s most senior leaders; this is not a conversation for the day-to-day sales team. Top-to-top meetings that are commonplace at industry events like CES, SXSW and Cannes are great places to kick these off.
  • Proof: Transparency and third-party verification are non-negotiable terms of the agreement. During the ongoing partnership discussions, establish clear milestones and the partner needs to commit to a certain remedy schedule that is verified by external partners such as Media Matters, ANA or IAB.
  • Punitive Response: the partner is either unwilling to engage in meaningful action or provide proof that they are making positive strides; it is of critical importance that a punitive response be applied. Develop your viable alternative media plan as part of working through the framework. As the advertiser, you need to have a clear and actionable plan to implement.

The harm to the people we care about is too great and the advertising industry is virtually unmatched in terms of financial influence. We can no longer hang out on the sidelines and avoid applying ethical standards to our media buying.