Beyond 'Brand Safe'

Our headlong rush into the automated, commoditized future of online media buying has spawned a cottage industry around the concept of "Brand Safety." The story line goes something like this: (1) Challenged to execute large scale buys across tens of thousands of websites, digital agencies outsourced the job to ad networks; (2) casting such a broad net, the ad networks hauled up a rotten fish every now and again - an advertiser's ad showing up on a page about hate speech, sexual content, that sort of thing; (3) the advertiser naturally recoils and rebels, challenging the agency to be a better steward; (4) monitoring and verification services offer to make the problem go away - for just a little vig on the CPM, they'll verify that each page where the advertiser's message will appear is now "brand safe;" (6) the agency passes the additional cost on to the publishers and all is hunky dory.

The Drift is proudly underwritten this week by PubMatic, which empowers publishers with one holistic platform to sell advertising more intelligently.

Setting aside the data issues and economics of publishers underwriting the cost of the agencies' choice (there's enough material there for a separate edition of The Drift), I think there's a huge flaw at the center of this whole practice: Isn't "Brand Safe" just too small a promise?

If the internet is so unsavory that ads need to travel with a digital security escort, what message does that send to brand marketer? And having sent that message, can it be erased by guaranteeing pages will be free of nudity and F-bombs? It seems to me like the terms of the discussion need to change, and can take one of two natural directions.

On the one hand, perhaps we should be candid with marketers about what it means to buy reach on the web. It's a rough and tumble place, sort of a digital Deadwood. You want a lot of cheap, automated and nominally targeted impressions? Can do. But lose the pretense that you're sponsoring Masterpiece Theatre. I think a great many marketers would accept this tradeoff, while others would probably always insist their sites be hand-selected, rejecting the idea of 'verification' entirely.

On the other, sites and technology players should ignore "Brand Safe" and instead talk about "Brand Additive Environments." Instead of just deleting the bad stuff that might hurt a brand, we focus instead on finding environments where brands can thrive. Editors play a role here. But in their absence, technology can read and understand pages or scan videos for content cues. Let's talk about what our sites, pages and consumer interaction can do to help a brand grow, not how we'll protect the brand Telling me that you've driven the muggers and prostitutes out of the neighborhood doesn't make me want to live there. I'd rather you find me a better neighborhood. Let's do that.