More than ever, advertisers are recognising brand safety must play an important role in their campaigns – and their strategies need to be always-on, says Hugh Munro.

Historically, brand safety and verification technology has been treated as a “set it and forget it” exercise. Brands, and their partners, put in a lot of heavy-lifting upfront – creating vast website, app and keyword exclusion lists. Sometimes these lists contain up to tens of thousands of items.

The problem is, while these lists become the default for a brand and generally stay static, the news agenda and media landscape is anything but. 

In the news cycle, phrases and words go from obscurity to our daily lexicon in a flash. If someone asked you what “social distancing” meant a year ago, what would you have said? 

Brand safety and verification strategies need to adapt to changing contexts and become always-on. 

The damage of “set it and forget it”

A fixed keyword block list raises several issues for the ad ecosystem as a whole. For brands, these lists can become a historic document, not an accurate representation of current issues of the day.

For example, more than three years after the Manchester Arena Bombing, both “Manchester” and “Ariana Grande” are featured on dozens of advertiser blocklists in the UK. This is despite the common-sense fact that the vast majority of the uses of these terms today will be in a context entirely unrelated to the attacks. 

Strategies that fail to take into account changes in context can create issues for publishers regarding the monetisation of suitable, and brand safe, content. Overzealous and static lists can also limit brand exposure and potential consumer engagement and damage brand-publisher relations in the process.

To overcome this issue there are two key areas that brands need to focus on. The first is human and the second technological.

Creating an always-on mindset 

The first change needed for effective brand safety strategies is to stop treating them as a tick-box exercise. Instead, we must treat brand suitability and safety as an always-on activity, just like the news cycle. 

One of the most harmful impacts of keyword blocklists is that changed contexts can lead to a chasm between the values the brand publicly extols and the content they appear alongside. 

Take this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, when thousands of brands put out statements of support, or shared new internal commitments to diversity and inclusion. An overly cautious tick-box approach years ago could mean they are still blocking keywords related to social justice causes today even while they champion those values publicly. 

So, the process of building brand safety needs to take both changing news contexts into account, as well as brand values. And it needs to do so from the start. 

A recognition of changing contexts (both in the news agenda and what words themselves mean) as key should be reflected in both safety measures and ad targeting. That means placing ads in front of consumers looking at content that is contextually relevant to the brand. 

All this doesn’t have to require more time, work, and effort. It’s a case of working smarter, not harder. 

Rather than developing Excel sheets of thousands of items that are then forgotten, a holistic strategy should include ongoing human input from the business, along with the right technology that can respond rapidly to changing contexts. 

This ensures that brand safety embodies the brand’s values, drives messages to the right audiences and stops a divide opening up between brand values, safety measures, and ad placements.

Technology is key to a more intelligent approach to brand safety

Along with a shift in mindset, new and advanced verification and safety tools offer advertisers a way to ensure their brand is safe while driving ad performance. 

Machine learning in conjunction with new developments in semantic science mean that brands can target accurately, and safely, at scale. By understanding the context of the evolving news agenda, and the meaning of complex content at speed, advertisers can then use this insight to inform smarter ad placements. 

So, while keywords are important, they are just one part of the ever-growing brand-safety toolbox that marketers need to embrace to create an effective brand safety strategy.

Moving toward “societal safety” approaches 

Ultimately, safety practices that stay static will fail. It's imperative that we start thinking about what the World Federation of Advertisers’ CEO Stephan Loerke terms “societal safety” and begin embracing the tools that enable it. 

The goal should not be restricted to creating a ‘brand safety floor’ that protects brands at a fundamental level from appearing alongside harmful content, but should also be about expanding the role of the ad sector. 

The industry has a role in protecting society at large by combatting the spread of fake news, fraud and hate speech. The content that brands appear alongside needs to match up with both the values they espouse and to support broader challenges. 

With a shift in process, mindset and the adoption of new technology this evolution won’t be a costly or time-intensive exercise. But it will be a rewarding one for brands, publishers and consumers, when ads are brand safe, performing well, fuelling great experiences and reducing the spread of unsafe content.