By Lou Mastria
Big Idea: Brand aversion to controversy in the digital realm has had the effect of steering ads away from hard news content – even as consumer attention is drawn to such content. The ramifications – on journalism and beyond – is alarming.
How can we get ads back into the news business?
During the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) Summit each year, we gather as a community to look at how interest-based advertising and self-regulation carry various marketplace impact.
This year, our program included an important investigation into an area that is vital to our democracy: how do we foster the ad financing of our current and next state of journalism – and specifically, how do we bring brands back to necessary online journalism platforms. In our zeal for brand safety and avoiding fake-news financing, our Summit panel clearly demonstrated that we’ve gone too far the other way – leaving news seriously underfinanced. This is not sustainable.
Coming together to explain this unwanted development – and to illuminate a solution – were three discussants, each with a unique perspective: Jennifer Cobb, executive director, United for News; John Montgomery, global executive vice president brand safety, GroupM; and Robyn Peterson, chief technology officer, CNN Digital. Joining the panel as moderator was DAA Board member Dick O’Brien, executive vice president, government relations, 4A’s.
Fake News – And a ‘Bad State of Affairs’ for Digital News Platforms
Photo: DAA Board member Dick O’Brien, executive vice president, government relations, 4A’s, moderated a DAA Summit 19:DC panel on brand safety and the future of news.
“There’s been a lot of concern, I think, about the stature, the stability, the respect, the longevity, of the established news universe that we all grew up with and are used to,” said Dick O’Brien, 4A’s. “There was a time when people would take their news from the newspaper in the morning, then NBC Nightly News or ABC Nightly News at night, and that – of course – has all changed. Now, important parts of the population, particularly young people, take their news digitally, and from any number of different sources, and in that digital world of communicating news, there is a lot of mischief going on. We hear, first of all, political leaders question the legitimacy, and the reliability, of the news that comes out. But beyond that we see iterations of ‘fake news’ that’s going out that’s hard to spot from those that are not fake. … The net effect that it has made certain parts of the digital news business suspect.”
“You can’t tell when you’re getting reliable straight news and something’s that’s been doctored or manufactured, for propaganda or for worse,” O’Brien said. “So, news has come under a little bit of a cloud, digitally, and there is a question of what does that mean for advertisers. …It means a lot for the advertising community. Advertisers are becoming increasingly reluctant to have their ads appear near or in conjunction with news that may not be reliable, or may not be accurate. They are putting the same strictures on where their ads can run as they are putting on terrorism, on pornography… we actually have advertisers saying we don’t want to run [ads] near news. That’s a bad state of affairs, and it’s not good for anyone.”
Brand Safety: A Little History – and a Present-Day Challenge
“Let’s talk about brand safety – because I think it’s appropriate just to sketch a little bit of history around this as we get to the news issue,” said GroupM’s John Montgomery. “We’ve been tackling contextual brand safety for about 10 years now. We were concerned primarily about our advertising appearing adjacent to inappropriate content, at that time, mainly adult content on the Web which was prevalent, but also we were using dynamic key word exclusion and category avoidance for things like – for example if we have an energy company, you don’t want your advertising adjacent to news of an oil spill.”
Photo: During DAA Summit 19:DC, John Montgomery, global executive vice president brand safety, GroupM [right], talked about the genesis of the brand safety issue in news – and how the marketplace responded. Co-panelist Robyn Peterson, chief technology officer, CNN Digital [left], listens in.
“The technology,” he continued, “which has become much more sophisticated since then, was able to look at the metadata behind the page, do a basic semantic analysis, read the URL and say, ‘you know what, we won’t bid on this one, it looks kind of risky.’ And it worked very well – and we thought at the time we were 99-percent safe across most media that we could see into.”
“Until February 9, 2017, which is kind of etched in my mind, the London Times [The Times of London]…did a five-page expose headlined ‘Big Brands Fund Terror.’ The idea was that brands were advertising [alongside] extremist content on YouTube, and by doing so, were funding terrorism organizations.”
Montgomery was put on alert.
“Nineteen brands were called out,” he said, “…It would be an understatement to say that marketers went into a state of panic. I’d never been in front of more CEOs in my life than I had during that period of time, because they were super concerned about protecting their most important asset which was their brand.”
“We always talk about reputational damage, but reputational damage is financial damage,” Montgomery said. “It affects your share price, it affects your consumers. That changed the brand safety landscape forever. If you think of brand safety as a pendulum, [then] it swung and stuck, for about six months, to minimum, minimum risk. ‘What are you doing to keep my brand as safe as you possibly can? I want to avoid controversy.’ This is where the problem started for news, because using dynamic keyword optimization and category exclusion, you know what, let’s stay away from news entirely, because it’s just too controversial. Let’s just exclude news and help us build reach elsewhere. Unfortunately, part of the problem is that we were able to build adequate reach without news at that time. So what happened was that advertising revenue flowed out of news organizations. And it stayed that way.”
The ‘Trump Bump’ – But Where Are the Ads? Time to Come Back to Trusted News
“Even with digital news organizations enjoying a huge increase in impressions – we all know about the Trump bump,” Montgomery said, “some news organizations have increased their digital impressions by up to 50 percent – unfortunately the opposite has happened with advertisers. While we have more digital inventory in news, the advertising flowed out. Some large news organizations have said that their advertising revenue is down 50 percent, as a result of this. There hasn’t really been a correction where advertisers have gone back into news. There’s been an overreaction from advertisers and, at the same time, advertisers have gotten used to not using news organizations because they’ve found the reach elsewhere.”
GroupM is now a megaphone for trusted news sources. “We are going back to our clients now to say two things,” Montgomery said. “One is that you can really go back into quality news – news isn’t just hard news – news is many other categories. News can be information about gardening and cooking, and automotive and hobbies. But even hard news can be brand safe if it’s protected by technology. …You can shape where you want to be fairly tightly. And the second thing is [funding news] is the right thing to do. This is an existential crisis for news organizations, and that means a real issue for free speech and democracy.
Advertisers are still extremely skittish in this space, particularly around comments and user-generated content. But news has suffered the most.”
Enabling Brand Safety in News – And the Rise of Helpful Artificial Intelligence Tools
“Let me first say, Thanks John, for trying to bring all the money back,” said Robyn Peterson, chief technology officer, CNN Digital.
“Brand matters. And it matters a lot,” he said. “It matters to advertisers so their ads don’t go adjacent to content where they feel it has a negative effect on their brand. But in the news space [too], brand matters a ton. There are certain [news] brands that I think you know you can trust, and you’ve come to learn that over time. CNN is one of those brands but even on our side, we’ve had to do a lot to convince advertisers that our content is safe to put ads around.”
Photo: Robyn Peterson, chief technology officer, CNN Digital, and his team are deploying various artificial intelligence tools, among other initiatives, to help protects brand advertisers on its digital news platforms.
Peterson talked about new technology tools being deployed to bolster brand safety in news environments. “Brand safety was really our first big foray in machine intelligence, where we have systems internally now – again, this is CNN, we know the people who are creating the news, there isn’t fake news here, it’s real news – but some of it may be content that brands don’t want to be adjacent to, and it depends on the brand. So we’ve built out machine intelligence at scale that programmatically identifies content that may not be brand safe for a particular campaign, and that’s been something we’ve had to do internally,” Peterson said.
“Some external solutions that advertisers are using, as John mentioned, a lot of times they are based on keywords, and keywords can truly fool you. You have to bring it up another level, where machine intelligence can help you understand context,” Peterson said. “Nails” for construction rather than “nails” for beauty he offered as an example. “We’ve had to build some of this internally to take this back to advertisers and say, ‘we know the content we’re going to put you around, adjacent to, and in front of – that is brand safe, we know that, and here’s how we’re doing it.’ So that’s one point where we were saying brand matters to the advertiser, it matters to us, and B-to-B relationship that ultimately is B-to-C on both sides.”
How Privacy Creates a Brand Safety Impact
On the audience side, though, brand matters because it’s hard to know what’s real anymore, especially as your relatives and your friends are sharing all kinds of crazy things... it’s hard to know what the real news is.”
Brand safety, too, often has a privacy component, Peterson said. “We are entering a new age as far as consent and privacy,” he said. “We need as news organizations – and this is a huge opportunity – to see our audiences as human, and to treat them as humans, so our audiences give us consent to get deeper into our products. Help us think about what content to create, how to better monetize, how to have a better experience holistically, and get the consent, because that’s the only we really move forward. Again, that’s another place where brand matters. CNN is a trusted guide through all the craziness that’s happening in the world. We need to preserve that in this age of consent and privacy. The only to do that is to be above board, transparent, and tight with that relationship.”
A New Initiative to Restore News Funding – Especially at the Local Level
“We are now in the 10th year of decline in freedom of press around the world, and while that’d deeply concerning in its own right, it’s also deeply concerning in that it’s tied up with a 10-year decline in democracy around the world,” said Jennifer Cobb, executive director, United for News, which is a new non-profit initiative to build an online programmatic platform for funding of trustworthy global, national, regional and local news organizations. “The space for free expression and the space for free democracy is closing tightly.”
Photo: Jennifer Cobb, executive director, United for News, explained the impact of news deserts on democracies – and how to solve for this at DAA Summit 19:DC.
“There are three reasons for that. The first has to do with the disinformation space… the rise of disinformation around the world and fake news,” she said. “The second is the incredible drop in trust in media around the world – the latest says the media is the least trusted institution around the world. And the third reason is because of the disintegration of the business model. The business model for investigative journalism, for quality and reputable news, has really just fallen away. It’s a global issue. If you start to really pick at them, each of these is all related to each other.”
“Where it’s really been devastating, and is truly an existential crisis, is at the level of local and community media around the world,” she reported. “This is absolutely just being decimated.”
How ‘News Deserts’ Undermine Democracies
“In the U.S., which is the largest healthiest media market in the world, one in three people now live in what’s called a news desert – which is a place that has no local news anymore… And this is devastating for democracy and social cohesion,” Cobb said.
Cobb identified five impacts of news deserts:
- As soon as you lose local news, you lose oversight… Corruption rises very quickly.
- Civic engagement starts to drop... When you lose local news, voting rights drop. People join civic organizations is smaller numbers. People run for office less frequently. So you’re really seeing this dissolution and fragmentation at the bedrock level of democracy.
- Disaffection rises. So when people don’t feel that their voices are heard, that they’re included in the conversation, that they’re recognized for their own local and community issues, they get angry. They start to feel alienated. We are seeing this around the world – in populist and nationalist movements.
- Polarization. When you lose your local news – local news tends to be more balanced and has to serve the needs of the whole community – so when you lose that, and you turn to only national sources as your primary sources of news, even the very best journalism tends to have on its opinion pages voices that have a political point of view, and people tend to sort themselves into groups. This is bad for social cohesion – there’s not this shared set of facts at the community level.
- And finally, trust. “At Internews where I work – there’s long been a saying, ‘People don’t trust the media, they trust their media.’ If you trust your local media, there’s externalities that emerge that people start to trust their institutions, they start to trust each other, and they trust national news organizations more broadly,” Cobb said. “Trust really starts at the grassroots and builds up from there.”
“When we first formed [with World Economic Forum] 18 months ago,” Cobb said, “we decided to gather all points of view so we could come together and do something practical and pragmatic on this issue. So we went out and invited brands, ad tech companies, advertising agencies, global and local media, NGOs and policymakers, into our coalition, which is what United for News is. And over the last year, we’ve been looking to design such a solution.
Coming Soon to the U.S. Marketplace – A New Programmatic Platform for Trusted News?
“What we’ve come up with is leveraging the programmatic infrastructure – and kind of nudge it into a new place,” Cobb said, noting that the first test marketplaces will be in South Africa, the Philippines and Canada – and possibly somewhere in Europe. “Our intention is to build a series of trusted marketplaces, in markets around the world, which contain inventory that have been vetted and validated by United for News as coming from reputable media. And that inventory will be drawn from national organizations, regional organizations, but very particularly, our mission is to go down into that long tail, and harvest that reputable inventory from local and community media, and bring it up into a trusted marketplace and make it really easy for global brands – and regional and national brands – and just spend against that inventory.”
“So the question you have to answer is how do we define reputable news?” Cobb said. “That’s a big question. The most important work we’ve done with our stakeholder community is to develop a set of criteria that we can use in this marketplace. And it’s really unique in this space, and because it’s a blend of advertising best practices, and journalism best practices. So, we are absolutely committed to brand safety and fraud prevention on the advertising side, and we are also committed to making sure that we have media inventory that comes from places that are producing original content, that are using good sourcing practices, that have good corrections policies, etc. …We are an independent, nonprofit, mission-driven organization, and I think that’s unique as an intermediary in the ad tech world at the moment.”
Blog readers may learn more of United for News on the Digital Advertising Alliance YouTube channel. .