Is it Time for Publishers to Reconsider the Brand Safety Value Proposition?


In association with GumGum.

In this exclusive article for ExchangeWire, Pete Wallace (pictured below), commercial director at GumGum Europe, discusses how techniques once solely applied towards the goal of brand safety can now be used for sophisticated contextual targeting, to the benefit of publishers.


What are the current attitudes from publishers toward brand safety, and why is it important that they’re proactive in ensuring advertising content appears in safe places on their sites?

No publisher wants to plant a sign saying “Danger: Beware of Unsafe Content” on their site, because advertising is an important revenue source. But for some sites striking the right balance can be tricky, especially for hard news sites and those with user generated forums.

Pete Wallace GumGum

Pete Wallace, Commercial Director, GumGum Europe

For most advertisers though, the commercial appeal of being brand safe is not lost. After all, brands will ​happily pay more to avoid reputational injury​ – so publishers who quantify their brand-safe inventory can sell ads at higher CPMs. Those increased CPMs, the thinking goes, will compensate publishers for the added costs of implementing brand safety technologies.

But problems arise when publishers can’t raise these CPMs enough on the promise of brand safety alone, to offset the loss of inventory that is classified as “unsafe”.

What has happened in recent years to change the game for publishers when it comes to what they can gain from being brand safe?

Luckily, publisher inventory is no longer valued just on the safety guarantee alone. In fact, thanks to certain events in the advertising space, publishers now have even more to gain from investing in brand safety technologies and generating revenue as a result.

Among the many variables that go into the CPM calculus, one in particular is becoming increasingly important: contextual relevance. Largely due to new data privacy-oriented regulations and browser updates, contextual targeting is making a comeback. But this can pose big challenges when it comes to digital contexts.

That’s because contextual targeting requires aligning publisher content and brand messaging. But, as the many high-profile brand safety blunders from recent years have shown, all the publisher content out there is largely unmapped territory. And it’s pretty hard to target anything without a map.

If we can assume that brands are willing to pay more to avoid brand safety reputational risk, then it’s all but guaranteed that they’ll pay more to reach receptive audiences in brand relevant contexts. And it happens that technologies used to classify content as brand safe are the same as those used to classify content as “automotive” or “fashion”. Brand safety technology is really just contextual targeting technology applied defensively – contextual “anti-targeting”, so to speak.

Why are publishers in a better position than brands and advertisers to enable this to happen?

For effective contextual targeting, just as for brand safety, metadata and keyword search is not enough. While brands and platforms can effectively integrate contextual analysis tools for brand safety and targeting pre-bid, due to technological constraints (processing power and download times – especially with video) those tools are not capable of conducting the kind of full-scale, real-time content analysis that delivers the most actionable contextual insights.

But because publishers own the content, they can analyse, categorise, and tag it with contextual insights prior to publication. That means they are able to offer the kind of fully vetted supply that is truly deserving of the premium CPMs associated with safe, contextually-relevant inventory.

What needs to happen to get publishers to think differently about brand safety and what it can do for them?

We know publishers want to classify their content, because contextually-targeted inventory will increasingly command premium CPMs. But at the moment they’re inclined to shrink from supply-side brand safety tech.

Moving forward, publishers should look at brand safety technologies in a different light. The exigency of contextual ad safety for brands has inspired the development of advanced contextual analysis tools. And while these tools can deliver intelligence about the superficial nature of text, image, and video web content, they also deliver deep insights about sentiment, tone, etc – all of which can actually serve a contextual targeting function.

Are there any risks involved, from a publisher perspective?

It’s true that content classification tools and technologies will end up blocking some inventory in the name of brand safety. But on the flip-side, these tools will also open up new inventory and​ increase overall inventory value. Plus, publishers that embrace them get the bonus of being seen as partners who care and are willing to do what it takes to give buyers safe and potent advertising opportunities. And in an industry as suspicious and self-conscious as ours is, the value of trust should never be underestimated.