Have brands become overly sensitive about their ads appearing next to the news?

Advertisers, agencies and publishers need to work together to ensure brands are not overly sensitive about appearing in news environments, writes our Operations and Ad-Tech Director, Leena Vara-Patel.

Martin Clarke, the publisher of MailOnline, recently called for brands to see it as their "public duty" to support all news, amid concern that some advertisers are over-sensitive to their brands appearing next to news they see as harmful to their businesses.

"There are some big brands, particularly in America, that don't want to be next to news at all, which is really unfortunate because society needs news. It would be nice if brands saw it as their public duty to support news of all stripes," said Clarke.

A swathe of negative national headlines about brand safety has meant marketers are more conscious than ever about the environment in which their ads appear, including proximity to news stories they see as a bad fit.

Let’s be clear, brands and agencies should not lose sight of the fact that a free press is an important function of our democracy: journalists do a fantastic job of pointing out hypocrisy, injustice and righting wrongs. If brands continue to steer away from news that is potentially contentious, we could be at risk of inadvertently creating a very sanitised view of the world.

What’s more, advertisers vetoing their brands from appearing in the news environment altogether are likely to limit themselves and the overall digital ecosystem.

Clarke is right to point out that some brands are perhaps over-sensitive to this issue, but I don’t agree with Clarke that it is a brand's “public duty” to support news.

A brand's primary duty is to its customers and shareholders and they owe no public duty to news providers, nice as the sentiment is.

Furthermore, there will always be marketers who believe it is unsuitable for their brand to appear next to specific news stories, like an airline brand appearing next to a story about an air disaster.

I do believe, however, the issue of brand sensitivity around news is underplayed and, as things stand, publishers, advertisers and agencies are all losing out.

Overseeing brand safety across digital channels has always been a tricky balancing act; agencies have to ensure they use brand safe environments whilst delivering scale and performance.

For example, putting a blanket ban on a brand appearing next to anything with terrorism connotations can be unnecessary, have a negative impact on brand performance, and unnecessarily dent publisher revenues.

Blacklists need to be optimised

I firmly believe it’s the role of agencies to educate their clients to ensure we are striking the right balance. I am all for erring on the side of caution, but I also believe agencies should do more to optimise blacklists.

Too often keywords are added to blacklists while keywords which are no longer unsafe are not taken off.

When a news story breaks, certain keywords can be highly sensitive, but over time as the news cycles, they become less sensitive.

Keywords like “Manchester” and “Ariana Grande” are no longer unsafe for brands, despite some brands deeming them risky at the time of the Manchester terror attack.

The key to ensuring brands, agencies and publishers are not unnecessarily losing out by brands being overzealous is through education and collaboration.

We need more joint agency and publisher forums. These forums are currently too few and far between, and when we do get together the issue of brand sensitivity is so far down the agenda it rarely gets discussed.

Additionally, publishers need to convey to their agencies that brand sensitivity around news might be a bigger problem than recognised, and work with them on solutions.

One solution could be tech providers bringing in improved brand suitability products, which rely less on manual intervention, are better equipped to deal with the flow of the news cycle, and which agencies and brands can oversee together.

The current brand safety technology is often set up and left to run, so agencies are often left unaware that they could be blocking legitimate inventory.

The news environment will always be a sensitive one for brands, but unless we introduce a more joined up approach, brands, agencies and publishers will continue to lose out.

As featured in Mediatel.