Finding Brand Safety Balance: Q&A with Sebastian Gray, Dugout

Sebastian Gray (pictured below), co-founder and SVP at Dugout speaks exclusively to ExchangeWire about brand suitability, video advertising, and customer data protection.

How can brand suitability best complement brand safety when displaying video content?

Ideally, these two concepts should be the perfect team. Brand suitability positively targets advertising towards the most appropriate video placements and brand safety negatively targets away from potentially harmful associations. But the effectiveness of this partnership depends on all players in the digital advertising process laying the right groundwork.

We can use contextual intelligence to ensure an ad placement is based on deep understanding of online content, not just keywords. Advertisers must recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for maximising digital security and adopt measures to protect each brand — such as designing their own risk thresholds that define what they consider suitable and the level of risk they’re willing to accept. And publishers have possibly the most important role of all: correctly categorising content and making sure that information is easily available to buyers and ad tech vendors to keep the whole system functioning.

Is the former somewhat under-considered in video, and in the advertising industry in general?

Yes, I’d say there is a stronger emphasis on avoiding unsafe content than identifying good advertising opportunities across the board. When it comes to video, much of the reason for this lies with the challenge of guaranteeing suitability. At Dugout, we have a high level of control over our own content: direct access to high-quality video from football clubs, in-house production and full management of in-stream delivery. But outside of that it’s a different story. In the wider video space, advertisers often rely on analysis that doesn’t always determine true content sentiment, which makes it hard to match ads accurately.

There is a broad industry tendency to be cautious. While prioritising online safety is crucial — no brand wants their ads to appear alongside hate speech or content laced with malware — the urge to rule out any risk can mean attention mostly centres on what isn’t desirable, which leads to the use of tools like keyword blacklists.

At the moment, blocking ‘COVID-19’ is creating significant issues for publishers. On the one hand, SEO rules dictate they should be including the term in content and, therefore page URLs, to boost traffic. But on the other, advertisers are writing off that inventory due to brand safety concerns and publishers are having to re-orientate their optimisation strategies, switching to phrases such as ‘at home’. Advancements in verification technology are moving to address these problems, but the industry as a whole must work together to find a brand safety and suitability balance that works for everyone.

What steps should publishers and brands take to identify trustworthy creators of brand-safe content?

Sebastian Gray, co-founder & SVP, Dugout

Growing awareness of the need for guidance has seen an explosion of industry initiatives in the last few years. On the plus side, that means there are multiple mechanisms that can help steer advertising choices and allow media creators to prove their trustworthiness. Brands can use the 4As’ complementary Brand Suitability Framework, which specifies contexts that could pose varied risks for certain content categories. Publishers and sellers can adhere to a number of benchmarks, such as ads.txt, sellers.json, the IAB Content Verification Guide and Gold Standard, and the JICWEBS certification.

But there are also downsides. While these benchmarks are a sign of progress in the industry’s mission to raise transparency and digital media quality, these frameworks haven’t been designed with compatibility and different business models in mind. Many creators are finding it difficult to keep up with the constant influx of new rules, and others simply don’t fit the mould of generic frameworks; particularly those covering multiple areas, such as video producer and publisher.

Most creators are committed to meeting the highest possible standards and providing the assurance ads will appear in trusted environments, but brands need to understand the difficulties they face in continuously securing the latest stamp of approval. It is also worth independently checking out sites most likely to carry higher risk.

How can such relationships be reviewed in a timely manner? Should partner creators become inappropriate for the platform/brand?

Relationship monitoring will vary for each business in line with how they operate, as well as what their specific priorities are for digital advertising and brand management. But to stay on the ball, the one thing every company requires is an efficient evaluation system.

That might involve an ongoing analytical cycle where data is consistently gathered from a selection of reliable reporting tools, combined in a centralised data lake, and assessed using advanced business logic to identify areas of concern. This will enable brands to quickly and precisely pinpoint which placements don’t match up to their brand safety yardstick and re- direct spend towards safer media.

How can fans best be targeted through the privacy-and browser-mandated restrictions in third-party cookie usage?

Limitations on third-party cookies are frequently seen as detrimental to ad targeting, but this view fails to take a crucial factor into account: user experience. For over a decade, online ads have revolved around audience profiles built using search activity, but this hasn’t necessarily driven better results for brands or consumers. Consumers are often bombarded by ads based on recent searches for products they have already bought, and multiple brands end up paying for clicks they might have received for free through organic searches.

The shift away from cookies offers an opportunity for advertising to evolve into a service that enhances the online experience instead of simply selling a product. The industry must recognise that engaging digitally and data-savvy audiences means appreciating the value of their attention and providing high-quality ads worthy of their time — and the best way to achieve that is targeting ads according to contextual patterns, not individual profiles.

Thanks to developments in content analysis, it’s now possible to evaluate the context of pages far beyond basic keywords and drill down to the real meaning of content. We can combine this knowledge with contextual signals and first-party publisher data about how users are interacting with content to find out what they are genuinely interested in.