The State Of Play Today
The challenges confronting brand safety in APAC are many.
The first, and perhaps most common, is: many would hesitate to bear the cost of brand safety. A percentage of tech fee is usually added into the media cost to apply brand safety tech; translating into higher costs for brands and agencies. This is especially pertinent in Asia, where marketers and agencies are often “in a race” to deliver KPIs at the lowest cost possible. There is also a misunderstanding of premium inventory, with many thinking that the more brand safety controls there are, the less inventory there will be, and KPI numbers will go down. As Deepika Nikhilender, senior VP APAC at Xaxis, puts it succinctly, “everyone wants more for less, so what can you do?”
Tom Dover, senior account director, Xandr, shares a similar sentiment, “while some believe the responsibility falls purely on agencies, the reality is that every participant should have a vested interest in ensuring that advertising is not placed next to inappropriate content.”
However, in some cases it isn’t about no one wanting to bear the cost, but rather the reality that no companies, agencies or bodies could take full ownership of brand safety. And yet, sometimes it’s not that no one wants to take responsibility, it’s that everyone is defining what brand safety means in their own roles. While the publisher is defining what brand safety is from a content perspective, the agency’s focus is on whether the tech being brought in to manage campaigns are safe. “The client gives the brief to the agency, who then briefs the publisher. When each stakeholder has different areas of responsibilities naturally, they’d be fulfilling different KPIs, and very often, they won’t be converging towards the same brand safety goals,” notes Nikhilender.
A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is another misconception. According to Dover, a local, market-specific approach is best when it comes to brand safety. “What is considered “brand safe” in one country may very well not be deemed acceptable in another. For example, alcohol content might be acceptable for an FMCG brand in Singapore or Hong Kong, but that same content from the same brand will not meet safety standards in other markets like Indonesia. Similarly, for e-commerce brands, discounts might make their creatives more appealing in China or India, but fall foul of restrictions on sales promotions in Vietnam, where there are set periods of the year for advertising more than 50% discounts.”
There are also technical challenges. As demand and supply platforms are constantly evolving, it could be hard for everyone along the marketing channel to keep up. User-generated platforms presents the biggest challenge, says Nikhilender. “Take a platform like TikTok, brands need to do their due diligence in investigating to make sure that their content can be placed in a safe environment before they’d consider working with it.”
While many companies know that brand safety is important, the above reasons might explain why it ultimately isn’t a top priority until a PR crisis happens, and marketers and agencies have to contend with the reality that lower brand safety standards would lead to a drop in brand value over time. In fact, a Jupiter research estimated that US$42 billion of digital ad spending was lost to fraud worldwide—and will rise to US$100 billion by 2023.
What about Brand Suitability?
Marketers are also grappling with the need to define 'safety' for their individual brands and campaigns, to enlist the best technologies and techniques, and to balance reach and targeting against acceptable levels of protection — knowing that no solution is 100% effective.
Marketers need to consider more subtle and nuanced decisioning that goes beyond simply adhering to the 4As’ Brand Safety Floor Framework (below).
While those categories represent a clear framework, campaigns need to go well beyond being ‚safe‘ to meet clients‘ needs. Instead focus should be paid to what’s suitable for any particular brand or campaign. For example, the context one CPG brand must avoid at all costs may perfectly suit the audience segments and messaging for an NC-17 film – which leads to better audience targeting and conversion results for the film.
Brand suitability should be considered when crafting brand safety strategies to add effectiveness to campaigns by balancing the acceptable level of risk versus a campaign’s desired reach and targeting. A perfect audience segment might be best accessed via branded TikTok content, yet those same engaged users might turn these content into unsavoury representation. While no one can gurantee a 100% brand safe environment, it is the agency's responsibility to inform clients about the risks and present them with tools to best mitgate those risks.
Going Beyond 'Table Stakes'
An ad should be seen by a real human, who is in your client’s target and in an appropriate contextual environment – these should be table stakes; the minimum requirements.
Xaxis, GroupM’s advanced programmatic media arm, recently introduced greater brand protection for clients in APAC through additional media quality checks on programmatic inventory. The rigorous and stringent process of authentication aims to bring greater brand suitability to help clients achieve greater outcomes for their media investments.
Xaxis is approaching brand safety with new levels of nuance and sophistication, increasing investment, and enlisting partners to improve capabilities as new guidance emerges, thereby bringing better quality and effectiveness to our clients’ media spends.
By assessing websites using a 10-step process, including domain names, whether the About Us page is clearly labelled and where sufficient info on user data collection have been provided. Not only does this remove all fraudulent and low quality domains from the inventory, the project also ensures that Xaxis’ inventory suppliers are most ethical and top quality.
Prathab Kunasakaran, head of supply strategy, APAC at Xaxis, gives an example of the requirement for the content and visual make-up: “In terms of the number of ads, five ad spots is really the maximum for one page. The ideal content and ad make up is 70% content is 30% ads, anything over this and it might affect reading pleasure.”
Xaxis is collaborating with various third-party partners for even more robust verification processes. One of these partners is SimilarWeb, a platform providing web analytics services to businesses.
“We provide website and app-level estimated metrics based on a blend of multiple data sources – those sources are then combined with machine learning algorithms developed by our data science team, enabling us to estimate digital behaviour on a global scale. As we add more sites to our learning set and our sources grow, our model only continues to improve,” says Jessica Bohm, director of marketing intelligence at SimilarWeb.
Xandr is another partner. The ad exchange has proprietary processes and policies, and a partnership with WhiteOps, an MRC accredited third-party, to maintain a high-quality marketplace. “We use systems and processes to block and deactivate content that violates our policies. In addition, we enable our customers to activate their own enhanced brand safety measures through integrations with the leading brand safety vendors in the industry and from platform quality features, such as sensitive attribute labels,” Dover explains.
The Xaxis authentication process is both automated and human verified, and only domains who have achieved eight or more ‘checks’ will be given a stamp of approval. In the past 4 months, a total of 2.9 million domains in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, India and Hong Kong have been authenticated.
Kunasakaran also points out that this authentication process should be seen as a complement to existing brand safety tech providers in the market. “We understand that there can never be a 100% guarantee when it comes to brand safety. What we are doing is adding other filters and layers (checkpoints) to provide a much stronger assurance. We realise some clients need that conviction.”
Looking ahead, Xaxis will move into authenticating mobile apps, which Xaxis believes to be important in digital-first economies like India. Similar to websites, mobile verification will be a 10-step process. As with websites, Kunasakaran predicts language will be a key challenge. Unlike websites however, apps don’t have URLs, only an app store ID. While there are two major stores--iOS and Android--each holding thousands of apps, the Xaxis team will also have to scour smaller stores to ensure the process is as thorough as possible. The rise of mobile gaming also makes mobile verification a priority. “The quality often varies from one gaming app to the next. We aren’t just talking about the technical aspects but also the content itself,” notes Kunasakaran.
Xaxis has piloted the service with a luxury brand and is set to roll out the service in APAC in March 2020.
Despite existing challenges, there is hope that more and more brands and marketers will realise the correlation between brand safety and ROI. A perfect example is Xaxis’ campaign for Subway Singapore. Xaxis partnered with Mediacom Singapore to evaluate the effectiveness of the sandwich chain’s video ads across various online platforms. By leveraging proprietary premium supply and machine learning, Xaxis came up with a video solution with a viewability score 3X higher, translating into much lower cost per viewable completed views, than another social video campaign.
As for marketers who feel frustrated at not getting everything right, perhaps they’d be reassured by the reality that while brand safety controls can be reassessed and polished, it will never be 100% perfect.
As Kunasakaran says, “It’s always an ongoing process, especially now, with fake news and all, it’s becoming even more challenging to understand what marketers are really paying for.”
But for those who are keen to get it 99% right, Xaxis is there to lend a helping hand. Get a deeper understanding on brand suitability and raising the “table stakes” with The Brand Safety Edge Whitepaper.