Brand safety has forced many marketers to rethink their digital strategies following high-profile scandals. Here, Ligatus' Alex McIlvenny explores the steps that will help to steer digital spend toward safe, contextually relevant spaces.

Following a year where brand safety breaches caused 95% of UK CMOs to review their digital advertising strategies, and three-quarters (74%) of U.S. advertisers to suspend investment in ad networks, it’s no surprise safeguarding brand reputation is a top priority across the digital advertising ecosystem in 2018.

The environment in which ads appear has an immense impact on brand image. While brands benefit from the ‘halo effect’ when their ads are placed on premium publisher websites alongside relevant, quality content, they are equally damaged when ads run on poor quality sites or next to inappropriate content. The entire ecosystem is under threat if advertisers withdraw spend due to these concerns, so how can the industry come together to protect brand safety?

Here are three sure-fire ways to ensure a safer advertising environment:

Private networks offer brand safe neighbourhoods

A lack of transparency on open exchanges is a major issue in programmatic advertising, with practices such as re-brokering and reselling making it hard to gain visibility into where ads are placed. Complex supply chains mean low quality or fraudulent inventory easily finds its way into exchanges, increasing the risk of brand safety breaches.

Private and organic networks, on the other hand, select publishers according to strict rules and carefully audit and approve inventory. This means advertisers understand what they are buying and know their ad won’t be served in damaging environments. And the same applies to association with other advertisers. Appearing alongside another ad for a disreputable brand, or inappropriate product can be just as damaging to brand image as serving an ad on an unsuitable website, but because private networks scrutinise all the advertisers they work with, brands can rest assured this situation won’t arise. Private networks maintain direct relationships with buyers and publishers, providing far greater transparency into the digital supply chain.

The human element must complement automation

Automation in the form of programmatic has brought scale and efficiency to digital advertising, but it must never be relied upon totally to make the best advertising decisions, there must always be an element of human input. AI-based programmatic algorithms are designed to find the right user and serve the most relevant creative message, but can’t necessarily consider whether that user is being reached in an appropriate and brand safe environment. Brand safety is a highly nuanced concept, and its definition varies for each brand, making it impossible for a machine to ever fully comprehend.

Maintaining the human element requires advertisers to stop playing fast and loose with the major media platforms, which are just too big to be truly brand safe. Content on these platforms is produced at an extraordinary rate – much of it user-generated – making it impossible for humans to effectively review and approve it before accompanying ads are served. Algorithms left to run largely unchecked on these platforms have already resulted in multiple well-publicised brand safety breaches.

AI doesn’t currently work effectively within the complex multi-platform environment of programmatic advertising, but even when it advances to a point where it can be used, there will still be a need for human input to maintain brand safety. Advertising networks, along with the rest of the industry, must move towards an AI-based approach that is led by humans, best described as Human Aided Artificial Intelligence (HAAI), rather than relying solely on machines.

Putting user experience first requires relevant advertising

When the industry puts user experience front and centre, brand safety will naturally follow. If users receive high quality, relevant, well-targeted advertising, that adapts seamlessly to both the content they are consuming and the device on which they are consuming it, damaging or inappropriate ad placements will become a thing of the past. When user experience is truly put first, the industry can stop talking about brand safety and start talking about brand care – the ability to place ads in the most relevant and engaging environments.

Native advertising is naturally brand safe because publishers and networks who have adopted native care about the user experience and want ad creative to enhance and complement the content on the page, not detract from it. Native advertising has other benefits too, not least that – due to its contextual and tailored nature – it will not be filtered out by the new ‘ad-blocking’ version of Google’s Chrome that goes live in February. 

The digital advertising industry can make huge strides forward with brand safety this year. By shifting budget to the safer, more controlled environments of private networks, by ensuring humans are still included in the programmatic equation to understand the nuances of brand safety, and by putting the user experience first through native advertising, it can make 2018 the year brand safety concerns are well and truly put to rest.