If 2018 isn’t the year of brand safety, then it’s definitely a top 10 contender for the title. A year of fake news, extremist content scandals, and incendiary political commentary have thrown gasoline on the long-smoldering fire of the internet’s unsafe content problem. The rise of brand safety in the public consciousness has lead a number of organizations to place executive level focus on the problem. We sat down with Joshua Lowcock, the recently appointed Global Brand Safety Officer at UM, to better understand what his role entails and how UM plans to help its clients, and the digital ad industry, tame the brand safety beast.
Brand safety has been increasingly in the spotlight as a result of a multitude of factors–divisive politics, brand boycotts, increasing scrutiny on social platforms. What made UM decide that now is the time to create the role of Global Brand Safety Officer?
Joshua Lowcock: I have two roles at the agency. I’ve been serving as Chief Digital & Innovation Officer for UM in the US for the past three years, and now I’m also the Global Brand Safety Officer. The brand safety issue has been particularly obvious in the digital world for the past 12-18 months. Addressing brand safety, quality, and all of the related sub-issues was taking up a considerable amount of time over the last year, and one of the things we wanted to do was formalize the way we address and respond to the brand safety challenges both now and into the future.
There’s an absolute need for the executive level support that this role provides. You’ve got an ever present risk of advertising appearing in inappropriate places or advertising funding inappropriate content. So, just like you have a CFO responsible for the good stewardship of the financial systems, the checks and balances in the organization–you need some independent steward of brand safety who is independent of the way you think about data or the way you make investment decisions, but also to give clients the counsel they need. And one of the things I said in an interview last week is having those tough conversations requires helping clients build out their own brand safety profile and what their attitude or appetite is for risk and just being aware and understanding the trade-offs that are associated with that.
The term “brand safety” makes the topic seem overly simplistic. There’s brand safety and brand sensitivity. We can all agree we don’t want ads on terrorist content or hate speech that’s brand safety. But what about if you’re an airline and you don’t want to be on stories about airplane crashes? That’s brand sensitivity. The risk profiles and cost of failure are also different. Part of my role is helping clients navigate both sides of the issue and the challenges.
Your role is a global one. Do you see this as a global challenge for your organization and for the industry?
Brand safety is not an issue with a single root cause and it’s not an issue that’s limited by region. The U.S, the U.K, China, Australia and any world market needs to wrestle with brand safety challenges. It’s becoming apparent that every market has different challenges, some of which later appear in other markets. One opportunity is to identify the global trends. For instance, the Brexit issue in the U.K, and the allegations of foreign government interference was really the canary in the coal mine for potential issues in elections in other markets. That’s an example where global oversight can help mitigate risks in other markets.
You recently told the audience at Mumbrella that many clients still prefer riskier environments if they are cheaper. Is that still the case and how does that affect the work you’re doing as Global Brand Safety Officer?
I can’t give any client a 100% guarantee of brand safety. What we can ask clients is to help us understand their appetite for risk and how much trouble they could be facing when a failure occurs. How much do they want to do to mitigate that risk? How much of the cost premium are they prepared to pay to mitigate the brand safety risk? All of those decisions need to be made on a client level. No clients want ads to appear in or against inappropriate content. It is more that clients want media efficiency and that exposes them to brand safety risk.
Clients and procurement departments have done the math for years on what they prepared to invest in media vs. what is the ROI they need to deliver. This also goes for topics like viewability, I’m a firm believer that media should be 100% viewable, but clients do the math and work out what viewability they’re willing to sacrifice to hit cost KPIs. On the brand safety side of things, there has been less of a genuine focus on the trade-offs of media cost vs. the business risk. If you’re not willing to pay the cost premium for safer environments, 3rd party protection, etc. you need to also understand as an organization and brand whether you can deal with the media reports of brand safety failures, that your customers may react adversely and that ask yourself if you will able to calmly respond to the market when incidents occur. This is why brand safety is so important, it can extend to reputational, brand, or consumer damage if it’s not managed proactively.
A real challenge for clients (and agencies) is managing for the visceral reaction that someone has when there’s a brand safety incident — which is to immediately pull spend across all of digital, or a specific partner, or media type — and that’s not necessarily the right reaction to have. If you pull your spend, you’re lowering your reach against your audience/customers, which is not good. It means you’re not driving sales of your product, which is also not good. You’re pulling money away from publishers so it means there’s less content that can be funded and created, which is not good. And you’re giving air and oxygen to competitors who haven’t pulled their spend and as a result start stealing some of your market share. This is why you need to be proactive in managing Brand Safety.
How are you working with UM clients to address brand safety?
One of the conversations I have with clients is: if and when an incident occurs, how are you going to respond (you being the client, the board, customers and broader organization)? That helps me to find what a client’s right risk profile is and what environments they should be advertising in, and what controls we can put in place to manage brand safety risk. And as part of that conversation I have concurrent conversations about pricing, knowing that for every rule I put in place, there’s an incremental cost (and possibly a reach trade off). When do we reach that tipping point where it becomes cost prohibitive against a client’s risk profile and then we need to consider investing elsewhere.
In this regard, brand safety is a challenge that we need to address on a client by client basis. There’s no universal rule for the agency because the trade-off for every client is different. It depends on the category, the brand, the product, and the nature of your market. The point of the global brand safety role is for clients to have an advocate both internally and externally on this issue and help manage brand safety for their organization.
How is this role structured? Do you have a team or is brand safety a cross-functional responsibility?
Brand safety is everyone’s responsibility in the agency, so agency education has everyone taking accountability for it. I always say, if you see something, say something. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep an eye out for all our clients and the industry, because as much as technology can help, it’s not going to spot everything and sometimes brand safety can be nuanced.
Beyond counseling clients what is someone with your role doing to advance the cause of brand safety?
One of the most exciting things I am part of to help advance the cause of brand safety is the work being done with the 4As. I’ve championed an initiative called the [4A’s] Advertising Protection Bureau. It’s a 4As industry body focused on cooperation and sharing data and intelligence on brand safety. The APB is a great way for us to share intelligence, get ahead of the issues, and make brand safety a collective effort of having every advertisers back even if they’re not your client.
I pushed for the APB because there is no benefit to any agency in saying, “we’re more brand safe than anyone else.” This is because every brand safety failure undermines confidence in advertising as a whole. Just as in banking, there’s no benefit to a bank saying, bank with us, your credit cards are more secure than if you bank somewhere else because every time there’s a credit card fraud anywhere, it undermines confidence in the entire industry, not just an individual bank.
We can come together to look out for all clients, hold all publishers, platforms and adtech companies accountable; if we identify an industry trend or issue, we can stop it right way, for everyone.
We’ve all seen research that cites social and video as a major focus of brand risk, but we’ve also conducted several interviews with media buyers that contradict that. What side do you fall on, is there a channel that’s particularly rife with brand sensitivity?
I don’t think there’s a single source of brand risk. The issue is widespread on the internet as a whole. There’s not a particular platform or environment that I think is riskier than another. If I look at the past twelve months’ worth of issues I’ve dealt with, I’ve had as many concerns about quality premium publishers and news sites as I’ve had about social platforms or community created content. Yes, there are challenges in auditing video content for safety – but that’s always been true of video content.
From your vantage point, how involved are the social platforms and digital publishers in conversations about brand safety?
I think social platforms are now completely engaged in helping solve for brand safety. If you asked me twelve months ago, I might have given you a slightly different answer. Being proactive is great. Like everything, there are some publishers, partners, and tech companies that are doing a better job of leaning in hard to get ahead of the issue. The biggest challenge that a lot of them have had is finding the right person at an agency to have a conversation with that could represent client brand safety interests.
When this role was announced, there was a sense of relief across a whole host of publishers and tech companies. Now, they can have a conversation with one person who can help define how to address the challenges. Publisher, platform and adtech companies want somebody to consult with who can be focused on brand safety, so that they build the right systems and processes to provide the broadest level of protection. This helps get to the point where 90% of the risk can be managed with global agency rules and controls, and then the remaining 10% of which is managed against each client’s individual needs and adjust as appropriate.
Given that response, do you think that we are going to see similar brand safety focused roles emerging at the executive level at other major agencies and brands?
I’d say yes. I would absolutely hope that is the case. I’ve taken this role because I genuinely believe there’s value in it for UM and agencies. We have the ability to negotiate on behalf of multiple clients, to hold partners accountable and drive change with media partners, tech companies, and platforms. On the client side, it’s really important to have someone in this role focused on that trade-off between media efficiency and brand safety when it comes to making advertising decisions. Back to the finance/auditor analogy, clients need a voice in the room that sits between media, marketing and procurement.
Earlier you mentioned the Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB), and that it was a challenge that required an industry-wide response. What do you think a coordinated effort on brand safety for the industry looks like?
Right now it’s an intelligence sharing coalition, but I wouldn’t rule out an advocacy role. The current benefit of the APB is the increased transparency that we get. Historically, if there was a brand safety incident, knowledge of it and its impact was limited to just that one agency. Now, we’ll know exactly how significant that issue is and if a partner has a history of similar challenges.
Over the last year, we’ve seen a lot of brand safety crises with a political dimension. When it comes to sites like Breitbart or more recently Laura Ingraham, are advertisers being forced to take on a more editorial responsibility for content?
I think there’s a separate issue in the industry, outside of brand safety, which is this misguided belief that every impression deserves advertising or should be an opportunity to deliver an advertising message. Should everything be open to monetization? No. When it comes to traditional media, do magazines and newspapers have ads on every page? No. Do clients advertise in every magazine, newspaper, or TV network or program? No. That’s never before been interpreted as making editorial decisions or attempting to take an editorial position.
I think the industry needs to start accepting that every site, web page and app doesn’t deserve an ad impression on it, and that brands can and will make a decision about when and where they want to serve their ads. Brands have always been making decisions about where they serve ads, regardless of brand safety or editorial content because whether anybody likes it or not, advertising budgets are finite. Not advertising somewhere isn’t a fundamental affront to free speech or taking an editorial position.
I always say you have the right to free speech, you don’t have the right to make money from advertising. You can say whatever you want, anywhere you like, but you’re not entitled to monetize your opinion, content or service from advertising. Advertising is a privilege not a right. That’s the difference. That’s a fundamental conversation we need to be having as an industry.