Demi Abiola considers the impact of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement on how advertisers approach brand safety, and what it means for publishing brands.

The last few months across the globe have seen economic hardship and social revolution in the twin forms of the COVID-19 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve seen a metamorphosis from a global health crisis, to a humanitarian crisis, to an economic crisis, starkly shining a light on how disproportionately areas of our society have been affected.

Black Lives Matter

This article is part of an ongoing WARC series focused on educating brand marketers on diversity and activism, in light of the recent progressive steps made with the Black Lives Matter movement.

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The first half of 2020 has unearthed a crisis of morality and conscience around the world, not driven by money but a sense of doing the right thing. There is a renewed sense of collective responsibility – ‘If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem’.

This new collective responsibility has raised the issue of brand safety for advertisers once again – primarily in the form of mounting concerns around hate speech and content that seeks to divide rather than unite.

Though much of this conversation has happened around social platforms, it’s also pointed the spotlight on the role of publishing brands in this ongoing debate.

So, has the role of publishing brands in the brand safety conversation changed as a result?

I’d say yes. It’s made them more important than ever.

The brand safety debate is nothing new for advertisers, but recent events have brought into even clearer focus the importance of understanding the impact of where their media budget is being spent.

Publishing brands have long held the twin pillars of trust and transparency at their core. The ability for advertisers to control placement in environments that are trusted by audience and advertiser alike must surely be more desirable in the current climate. The most recent Edelman Trust barometer once again illustrated that when looking for general news and information, traditional media remains as the most trusted at 57%, above search engines and online-only media.

With the values and purpose of brands more visible and transparent than ever, now is the moment for advertisers to re-evaluate the importance of reliable context and carefully curated content, and to extol the virtues of investment in high quality environments such as published media.

Publishers themselves also need to capitalise on this moment too and use their acute focus on brand safety and their environments, to once again reassert the three indomitable qualities which define their place in the media mix: scale, context and fairness.


Declining print circulations have long perpetuated the ‘legacy publishers are dead’ narrative. But print circulations don’t tell the whole story. Publishing brand consumption has gone up considerably in H1 of 2020.

Since lockdown, total monthly market audiences have surpassed 50 million with publisher subscriptions rising to highest ever levels, equating to >94% of the 15+ GB population (Source: PAMCo 2 2020 Apr 19 – Mar 20).


There are three main contextual factors that have an impact on advertising performance:

  1. Attention: Whether people see the ads and for how long they engage with them.
    News brands come out on top when it comes to people regularly putting time aside for them; feeling a personal connection with titles; giving people something to talk about; and readers feeling trust in the content (Source: Newsworks Battle for Attention, 2015)
    Attention and time spent are also higher on digital news brand sites than general online – ad viewing is x2.5 times more likely and dwell time x30% longer (Source: Lumen)
  2. Relevance: The degree to which the advertising mirrors the content or brand values of the medium carrying the advertising.
    Publishing brands provide the opportunity for contextually relevant advertising. Quality targeting with relevant ads boosts attention scores by 107%. Not only are these ads more likely to be noticed, they are six times more likely to be remembered (Source: IAB, The rules of attention)
  3. Trust: The trustworthiness of the media environment and its impact on the trustworthiness of the advertiser.
    Published media environments ensure a quality of content and context which is beneficial to the advertiser, the halo effects being increases in long-term memory encoding (linked to decision making and purchase intent), engagement and the emotional intensity of the message (Source: Newsworks/Association for Online Publishing)

In a world where holding power to account and exposing wrongs has never been more important or had more impact, this is not the time to forget that advertising money spent with news brands funds their ability to be champions of truth and fairness, to hold those in power to account and promote the plights of those who have no voice.

In the past months, this quality has taken on a new level of importance in the world.

However, it is important to also remember that not all publishers are equal and that some news brands have had a history of editorial that doesn’t support inclusivity. So, rather than making brand safety a one-medium problem, now is also a time for some publishers to re-evaluate their own content to ensure they themselves don’t become the subject of future brand safety debates.

The changing advertising landscape should be an opportunity for publishers to monetise the shift in brands towards quality brand safe publisher environments and advertisers who are serious about ensuring their advertising appears in safe spaces should be ‘leaning in’ to the conversation.

This needs to include publishers, advertisers and agencies working together to overcome issues around over-zealous keyword blocking approaches around sensitive subjects and minority groups which remove publishers’ ability to monetise coverage of subjects of national and international interest.

In the area of minority groups, in particular, the commercial/content paradox is clear. Remove the ability for publishers to monetise content around important minority issues and those stories will simply stop being told.

Publishing brands still deliver scale, context and the ability to surface stories we all need to hear. Right now, it’s more important than ever that publishers extol these virtues and remind advertisers of their brands’ elevated importance in an era of social change and heightened focus on brand safety.

And it’s just as important that advertisers take the time to hear them out.