In addition to ushering in an era of uncertainty and chaos, the novel coronavirus pandemic has also laid the foundation for a reckoning across many industries, systems and social norms.
The marketing industry is no exception. Advertisers have been pushed to reevaluate how systems of inequality are playing out within agencies, brands and publishers. Agencies, ad-tech firms and media companies are facing layoffs, and online platforms are under heightened scrutiny to police misinformation as the 2020 presidential election looms.
Brands have responded by diverting ad spend away from reliable news sources in an attempt to avoid being placed alongside stories about Covid-19 and protests. But that has only served to highlight an existing problem in marketing: When programmatic advertising lacks transparency, the wrong people cash in.
With the launch of their new company, Check My Ads, Claire Atkin and Nandini Jammi are looking to guide brands through the crisis to keep their brands safe, stop spending money where it’s not helping them and fund reputable news sources that desperately need it. By doing that, they believe they can help divert ad dollars away from the sources of disinformation and hate that are crippling democracies.
How it all began
Atkin and Jammi first met when Jammi was working with Sleeping Giants, the movement she co-founded after the 2016 presidential election to address how brands were funding hate speech and misinformation, and Atkin was directing a b-to-b marketing agency in Vancouver. They found each other on Twitter through a network of b-to-b marketers.
“I noticed that [Jammi] had a really clear voice and had insightful and … visionary things to say about copy and positioning within copy,” Atkin said. “I noticed that her marketing skills were really good before I noticed anything else.”
They also recognized in each other a smart, like-minded perspective on the industry. Over the next several months, they discussed the work Jammi was doing and what needed to be done to fix a problem they saw within marketing: that brands seemed unaware of how their ads reached certain websites and that they were inadvertently funding hate speech and disinformation.
We would like marketers to be thinking about other ways to measure their relationships with customers in a way that isn’t reductive and reflects the true nature of a relationship.
Despite Sleeping Giants’ three years of calling brands out for advertising on the websites of bad faith publishers—a blanket term used for fake news websites engaged in ad fraud or those peddling misinformation and conspiracy theories—the problem wasn’t going away. Atkin and Jammi started to wonder whether the movement could address the problems it was intended to address. If brands were unable to control where their ads ended up, who was to blame for funding hate speech and misinformation, and how could it be stopped?
“We were just in this vortex of what is marketing? How can we fix it?” Atkin said.
Atkin and Jammi decided to start a newsletter, called Branded, about what they were discovering in their research. If they were going to figure out how to keep advertisers from inadvertently funding bad faith publishers, they needed to get as many industry people on board as possible.
Branded’s first edition went out in January with the subhead: “There’s something wrong with digital marketing—and we’re going to find out what it is.” As they worked through issues of brand safety, keyword blocking, ad fraud and what happens to ads as they travel through programmatic ad systems, their readership grew. They started to get subscribers from big-name agencies and brands and now reach about 3,100 people with their biweekly message.