IAB SEA+India: Brand Safety Evolution Report

23 November No author

Laura Quigley, SVP APAC, IAB SEA+India Board Member and Regional Brand Safety Working Group member, collaborated on this IAB SEA+India guide that breaks down the evolution of Brand Safety into actionable steps for all players in the ecosystem.

Introduction: Brand Safety

COVID-19 has highlighted that a blanket set of keywords is not the best approach to protecting your brand and also has a negative impact on publisher revenues. As an industry, we need to start thinking of Brand Safety less from a purely negative perspective, and more from a sliding scale of relevance and suitability. It’s time for the evolution of brand safety.

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau Southeast Asia and India (IAB SEA+India) Brand Safety Handbook 2020, the term “brand safety” refers to considerations, practices, and tools to ensure that advertising does not appear in a context that is inappropriate for a brand. Advertising online has come under scrutiny over the past few months, particularly so, during the slowing down of global economies because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And, rightfully so. Brands, agencies, and publishers alike have relied on outdated approaches that have impacted brands and publishers in a negative manner.

The blanket use of extensive keyword exclusion lists that can play a role in blocking ads appearing against certain content, but do not have the ability to determine the context in which those keywords are used. This has proven to have a negative impact on the revenue publishers make from advertising as reported in The Guardian. If brands and agencies do not pay enough attention to the quality and relevance of the content they are buying against, they can open themselves up to a risk of not only wasting ad spends but also a reputational risk of appearing alongside fraudulent or misleading content.

So, what can be done about it? There are a number of steps that can be taken, and whether you are a brand, agency, or publisher, an understanding of what can be done to mitigate these risks will be a valuable tool for digital practitioners to have. Let’s dive into actionable steps.

Keywords – is it for tactical purposes, not a blanket brand safety strategy

Most advertisers use brand safety blocking to ensure their ads do not appear next to content deemed unsafe. An example of this might be a children’s brand blocking their ads appearing next to adult content. Keywords have been a helpful proxy for avoiding content that is not in line with a brand’s values. This is effective at blocking content in real-time, but it does not take into account whether the environment is actually right or wrong for your brand.

The keyword “coronavirus” has shifted from virtually unblocked in December of 2019 to the most blocked keyword globally by April of 2020. Not all COVID-19 content poses a brand risk and it is critical to understand the nuances of context, sentiment, and emotion on a page to ensure advertisers are not limiting their reach and blocking against content unnecessarily. This is important at a time when content consumption patterns are shifting, and consumers are actively seeking out relevant COVID-19 content to stay informed. It is critical for advertisers to acknowledge that not all COVID-19 related content creates unsafe brand environments, as reported by the Integral Ad Science (IAS) Ad Adjacency study, and that we should not demonetise the publishers who are providing balanced and informative content.

Advertisers need to take into consideration two areas when approaching and using a keyword solution:

  • There is a need to be reviewing the keyword list on a regular basis, this should not be a set and forget and it should not be continually added to as this creates a risk of blocking unnecessarily.
  • The technology has evolved. There is no need to use keywords for generic terms and allow the tech to do the job. There are situations unique to a brand for instance; a brand does not want to be adjacent to content that has its brand name in the article no matter whether it is positive or negative in this instance there is a need for keywords.

The use of keywords should be for tactical purposes not a blanket brand safety strategy. Try not to treat a keyword blocklist as something that should continue to grow – instead, it should be checked and refreshed at the very least every month. We often see that keywords lists are being continuously added to and are not revised as they should be. Outdated keywords remain on blocklists well after the term is no longer related to the breaking news story. The excessive use of keyword blocking has the power to notably impact the efficacy of marketer’s spend, reduce the reach of campaigns and miss out on valuable brand-safe placements that hold the best opportunity to reach engaged consumers. For brands and publishers alike, there are significant missed opportunities here. Advertisers should ask themselves – does it still make sense to block this term? And if so, how long will I continue to block it?

Fake news of misinformation

Misinformation is another topic that appears to have grown during the COVID-19 times. Facebook feeds are filling up with conspiracy theories relating to 5G and Bill Gates, and the proliferation of false or misleading content is on the rise. It has also been reported that brands are unwillingly supporting this content while buying media programmatically, so what can be done to prevent advertising spend going to publishers such as this?

First of all, there should be transparency in the supply chain, an agency, publisher and brand alike should be able to tell you what domains a brand’s advertisements are running against at all times, and if that is a challenge for any stakeholder, this should be a cause for concern.

Once you do have visibility on what domains or apps that your advertisements are appearing on, these domains should be reviewed to identify the validity of the content. You should look for things like:

  • Reputability – is the domain well known and is information about the domain publicly available?  If not, that is a red flag.
  • Anonymity – is the author or publisher of the content clearly identified? 
  • Originality – is the content original? Or is it a duplication of content found elsewhere? Quite often misinformation publishing is lazy, so using any number of publicly available tools to identify duplicate content is important. 
  • Is an Ads.txt file present?

If you answered negatively to one or more of the points above, you should strongly consider adding the apps or domains to the exclusion lists. Misinformation sites do very well at disguising themselves as legitimate content, but in the current climate when misinformation can have fatal consequences, we must work hard as an industry to prevent funding it.

Tailor your strategy in accordance with the “Channel”

A blanket approach to social media, news, in-app, connected TV (CTV) does not work. As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, we have come to see that not all coronavirus content is “bad”. So simply blocking the bad content and putting your brands out only next to the good content is simply not the solution.”

The advances in digital and programmatic advertising have given brands immense opportunities to reach the right audience, at the right time, through the right channels and at scale.

But it has also created huge challenges when it comes to ensuring that campaigns are running against high-quality content, and at the same time not on highly-dubious platforms.

Social Platforms

A 2019 survey from AdColony found that 49% of social media users changed their opinion of a brand when the brand’s ad was displayed next to inappropriate content.

Given that on social media platforms, the content is largely user-generated, it poses a greater brand safety risk and an increased need for vigilance.

Most of the social media platforms are now giving advertisers more control over their brand safety. Advertisers now have an option to choose where their ads appear with the ability to block specific outlets or publishers they do not wish to be associated with. These help brands customize the level of moderate or sensitive content that can be associated with their ads.

Given the nature and source of content on social media platforms, brands need to have more flexible targeting options to ensure higher levels of brand safety. The platforms need to be able to give advertisers the option to choose

  • Specifics of who (audiences) are being targeted
  • Ad placement – where the ads will be displayed
  • Topics, content or articles that advertisers want their brand to associate with
  • The types of content and the level of sensitivity


In-app experiences are different from any other mobile web or browser-based formats as mobile apps are operated in a controlled environment containing homogenous content, which means brand safety issues are less likely to arise at least for the majority of content verticals like gaming, utility and productivity apps. A smartphone user in Southeast Asia (SEA) spends about 4 hours 10 minutes and 90% of Southeast Asians accessing the internet on mobile phones, it is time for marketers to leverage ‘mobile’ as a medium to reach their audiences. With COVID-19 bringing the concept of ‘sheltering at homes’, people are also more inclined towards their mobile for entertainment. This has caused a surge in the usage of gaming apps by 70% in SEA, which are considered brand-safe. In-app advertising gives far more control to the advertiser as the ad frauds and risks are mitigated with a higher degree of control within the app environment.

Finding a good in-app advertising partner is not very complex and can be made simple with a checklist. A good in-app partner or platform would be compliant with the guidelines laid down by the industry bodies such as IAB and TAG as well as integration with Media Rating Council (MRC) accredited partners like IAS. It is found that the certified apps are 83% less prone to ad frauds versus industry averages. A strong in-app advertiser provides fraud-proof metrics that help brands reach their right customers with the right message and most importantly ensures that it is happening in a fraud-free environment with genuine consumers. More-so-ever, certain content verticals within mobile apps like gaming are run in a controlled environment where ad frauds are lowest. Gaming apps also are compliant with brand safety measures and provide distraction-less experience with full-screen ad formats.


With the number of consumers using their mobile phones while watching TV increasing by nearly 30% since 2016, advertisers have a unique opportunity to leverage cross-device attribution, using interactive CTV ads to drive conversions through mobile devices. This advancement to CTV is brought about by the limitations of the traditional TV channels in providing better, relevant, and on-demand entertainment services. Narrowing down to the single view of the consumer through particular shows, languages, locations, genres, and even times, CTV is an ideal option to reach target audiences, both localized and globalized to drive that incremental impact during and post the pandemic.

In the age of digitally active and empowered customers, the need for marketers to understand the customer requirements is more than ever. Targeted advertising is the way to go for marketers to create relevant and contextual experiences for the consumer. With precision and targeted marketing approaches now becoming mainstream, a blanket approach is no longer a pertinent solution, especially amidst the crisis.

Brand Safety in Evolving Media (e.g. Casual Gaming)

Social distancing is the new norm in times of COVID-19, user behavior is evolving with gaming seeing a surge in popularity during the current pandemic. In a study carried out by Adcolony recently, 86% of respondents had cut back on social activities across SEA and 46% of consumers are playing mobile games multiple times per day.

Does casual gaming present itself as an engaged and brand-safe option for marketers? Mobile gamers tend to be more receptive to advertising compared to non-gamers. About 43% of mobile gamers feel they are more likely to buy or use brands with ads they like, compared to 32% of non-gamers, which creates a massive opportunity for advertisers to tap into the casual gaming segment. As with all new advertising opportunities brands need to ensure that they are building a strategy in gaming to ensure they are  buying brand suitable and brand-safe advertising.

Coupled with the fact gaming developers have responded positively to initiatives like app-ads.txt and IAB Tech Lab’s OMSDK, marketers should rest assured the medium is also held to accountability.


Brand safety requires more than just a ‘blanket approach’ across your entire digital campaigns. There are intricacies that are unique to different channels and those need to be taken into consideration when devising your brand safety thresholds to protect your brand from appearing against unsavoury content. However, overzealous keywords blocking is counterproductive and it compromises scale. While brand safety is hygiene and increasingly becoming table stakes, marketers are focussed on relevancy and suitability of the content that brands are appearing alongside as a proxy for attention. There are tools and tactics available for brands to mitigate the risks involved in digital marketing and these are also available for evolving mediums such as gaming, where a tailored approach to prevent exposure to risk is required.

Authors & Contributors

IAB SEA+India Brand Safety Working Group

  • Laura Quigley, Senior Vice President, Asia Pacific, Integral Ad Science and IAB SEA+India Regional Board Member
  • Asim Rehman, Senior Director, Operations, Asia Pacific, AdColony
  • Deepti Phatak, Lead, Affiliate Search & Strategic Partnerships, Verizon Media
  • Shane Dewar, Head of Ad Operations, Asia Pacific, Essence
  • Sudhanshu Saxena, Head, Strategic Partnerships, Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa, InMobi