2020 Has Been a Wild Ride, but Advertisers Are Coming to Grips With It

The brave new world of brand safety

People on a scale with two apples on them
Advertisers are starting to balance earlier 'brand safety' fears with the 'moral obligation' to fund journalism. Getty Images

“Brand safety” is a phrase few CMOs want to hear, but many had to grapple with this year as an unprecedentedly chaotic news cycle carried on month after month during a period of medical, civil and economic strife.

Midway through Q2, media plans across the globe were radically altered as the economic impact of the spread of the coronavirus took hold for reasons of economic uncertainty, and fear of appearing “tone deaf.”

Some brands wanted to avoid articles about Covid-19, but the tactic of keyword blocking drew criticism as the global pandemic dominated the news cycle, and the adoption of such an unrefined approach to brand safety interpreted as starving news outlets.

As a difficult Q2 stretched into Q3, the issue was compounded as news coverage of protests over racial injustice prompted further reticence among media buyers who manage automated media buying campaigns.

In fact, there was such a concern around brand safety that many major brands paused spend on social platforms, decisions that have impacted what would have accounted for millions of dollars of ad spend.

How matters are evolving

The advertising world is starting to adapt, as “the new normal”—a hackneyed phrase in the early part of 2020—becomes a reality as brand safety tools evolve to better fathom nuance.

Speaking at Adweek’s virtual In With the New: Driving Discovery in 2021 event on Thursday, Jim Egan, vp of publisher development at Integral Ad Science, said that from mid-March to the beginning of May, the company saw an 80% drop in blocking coronavirus-related content.

“It’s important that advertisers are very thoughtful in how they curate their definitions for what is safe, for what is not, and what is suitable,” Egan said, adding that there “are always going to be tradeoffs” between valuing performance social platforms provide versus the brand safety trusted publishers offer.

Meanwhile, fellow panelist Robin Shore, senior manager of demand partnership at Taboola, described the popular initial approach to blocking ads as a “knee jerk reaction” from brands that wound up hurting publishers.

But that’s changing. Since the onset of the pandemic, Taboola has seen a 140% uptick in people seeking home and garden content and a 50% increase in people looking at pet related content, Shore said.

Even though many of those articles likely included mentions of the virus, Shore said they represent a safe space for advertisers that lead to positive results.

Overall, brands have had to adapt to a digital world since the pandemic began. Shore said people are spending an extra hour a day on the open web, according to Taboola data.

‘You can’t blame AI’

During a separate session, Taboola CEO Adam Singolda, told attendees that it is not enough to rely on automated systems when it comes to the spread of harmful content, especially on social platforms.

“If I were Facebook, I’d hire 50,000 people to … moderate day and night, and I would grow that team as big as it needs to be because it’s worth it,” he said.

Singolda added that people “can’t blame the AI for not figuring it out when it comes to sensitive areas such as content moderation on social and otherwise.”

During the event, executives also discussed how they rethought how to engage with customers with representatives of traditionally “offline” companies sharing some insights.

Anna Faktorovich, svp of marketing at restaurant brand Cava, explained how 30% of the company’s revenue now comes from digital channels, something that did not exist before the pandemic.

“We looked at every single touchpoint, end-to-end, to make sure that we were communicating and demonstrating our commitment to maintaining a clean and safe environment for guests and also our team members,” she said.

Watch the full video session below.


@andrewblustein andrew.blustein@adweek.com Andrew Blustein is a programmatic reporter at Adweek.
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