What is Brand Safety? Why Knowing Your Partners is Important.

Kate Laing Ad Ops

Brand safety. Two words that marketers, advertisers, and C-suite executives tend to throw around, but how many people actually know what it means, and why it’s important? Here at Sortable, we talk about brand safety a lot — because it’s a major factor in how brands choose how and where to part with their advertising dollars! From blocklists to locking down on ad spend in times of great uncertainty like we’ve seen with the coronavirus pandemic, brand safety plays an important role in the Advertising Operations supply chain. To get the specifics of brand safety down pat, we’re working with the Brand Safety Institute (BSI) to start the conversation and get down to the nitty-gritty details. Specifically, for this article, we got together with Christine Desrosiers, Brand Safety Officer in Residence at BSI.

Let’s start with, what is brand safety?

Brand safety is the concept of what is, and is not, a good idea to have your brand associated with — be it content, advertising, or a specific person. My favourite examples to illustrate brand safety — and its partner concept, brand equity — are Audi, whose #DriveProgress campaign was found at odds with their all-male board of directors, and Dell, who launched “Della” aimed at women who now represent 83% of the buying decisions in any given household with a brand built around pretty accessories. Both brands attempted to capitalize on the issue of gender diversity in the workplace with different advertising initiatives,  and both ran afoul of what appeared to be hypocritical thought processes in the actual systems they put in place. More recently, brands like Reebok have dropped associations that they felt weren’t safe for their brand. 

When it comes to Ad Ops, brand safety is mostly focused on content that a brand would or would not like to be associated with. This has never been more of a focus than during the pandemic where many advertisers decided to put words like “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” on their blocklists, lest they be seen as capitalizing on, or being insensitive to, a global tragedy.

Now, what can brands, publishers, and other members of the Ad Tech supply chain do to be cognizant of brand safety — both their own and those of the advertisers they want to work with? Christine Desrosiers from BSI had a simple yet complex answer: Know your partners!

Let’s dive in.

What does knowing your partners mean, exactly?

“We all work with partners — no company is an island, and you’re judged by the company you keep, so to speak. So what happens to one company can represent a risk for you, and anyone that you work with. This is especially true if your data privacy clauses in any of the contracts you’re using aren’t written properly; they need to be airtight. If they aren’t, then your partner’s data breach or misuse problem can blowback on your company, as well, tarnishing your brand and potentially opening you up to regulatory action.”

And for those of you who might be thinking that this is only a big brand issue, she’s quick to point out that it’s not. “It’s a fundamental building block of business administration — every business has risks, and mitigating them is something that everyone should take seriously.”

So, what are some things a brand can do to keep itself safe?

“Make sure you’re evaluating the terms of the contract. What are their data privacy policies and practices? We also recommend credit and background checks on all of your partners. Make sure they are who they say they are, and if you can get references — even better. Don’t be afraid to check them out on LinkedIn and see who’s in their network,” she says.

So much of business is done online right now, so sending an email may seem like an appealing idea, but Desrosiers cautions against it. “Get someone on the phone! Nefarious actors don’t like getting on the phone, so if you can’t reach someone that way it should be a huge, red flag.”

The other thing she recommends doing regularly is making sure that your finance and legal departments are up to date on the latest terms and conditions — the nuances — of the industry that you’re operating in. “Working in Ad Ops, the industry changes so quickly that making sure everyone is up to date on the current requirements is crucial. Ongoing education for internal teams is something a company needs to stay focused on. Companies should also consider brand safety training for Legal teams, to help them learn what to look for and how to create the types of internal controls that can prevent bad actors from sneaking in, ” she says. Speaking of working in or with programmatic advertising, Desrosiers is quick to point out that there are a number of tools at your disposal when it comes to managing transparency.

“The way the industry as a whole has developed has led to very high complexity and a  lack of transparency in the supply chain, which allows bad actors to slip in, so the more players in our supply chain who take advantage of anti-fraud tools — such as those from the Interacitve Adverstising Bureau (IAB) — the better. There are also great resources from the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), whose registration program involves thorough vetting to keep criminal organizations out and ensure good business practices at their member companies.”

Why you might ask? Well, we did, anyway!

“Because it helps brands make sure that they’re not accidentally funding bad actors. There’s this incentive on the buy-side to increase the return on investment (ROI) of ad spend, in terms of absolute dollars — the lower the effective CPM of the buy, the higher the ROI. On their face, taking advantage of the IAB tools can appear to drive up costs, but to understand that, we need to look a level deeper. Fraudulent inventory, such as bot traffic, fake news, or pirated sites, is cheaper than high-quality inventory served on a real publisher to a real human — but obviously not what you want.  Buying fraudulent inventory can bring down your effective CPM, but in terms of your marketing goal of reaching real consumers with your message, money spent on fraudulent inventory is just waste. So, yes, transparency adds cost, but it also adds value — it helps accomplish what advertisers want; real eyeballs on ads, not bots.”

In this sense, both ad tech vendors and advertisers should all be on board to increase supply chain transparency and root out ad fraud. 

“Technology should be the facilitator, not the end result. Social engineering is getting very sophisticated too, so technology is going to have to adapt in order to keep the system functioning in a way that’s good for brands, but also for publishers and the ad tech community as a whole.”

We here at Sortable couldn’t agree more, and data privacy is something we’re pretty passionate about. We work with vendors like Confiant — an industry leader in preventing malicious advertising and detecting bad actors in the supply chain. Ad fraud is something we take very seriously, and we vet our demand partners extensively to ensure that our publishers have the highest quality access to advertisers. We know that our partners are doing the same thing, and would recommend the same for any brand out there.

Stay tuned for more in our BSI series on all things brand safety!

Until next time,

The Sortable Team