Lessons from Google’s Woes

There’s really only been one media story this last week, and that’s the industry’s reaction to Google inadvertently placing ads alongside various deeply inappropriate YouTube videos.

In case you missed all the excitement, here’s a summary.

Ads for well-known brands including Marks and Spencer, The Guardian, Channel 4, and Land Rover have been amongst those inappropriately placed. The brands immediately pulled their budgets off YouTube. Politicians yelped; news media (who can’t hide their delight at what’s happening) covered the story; Google apologised (interestingly, for the ads’ placements, not for the videos themselves being there); analysts downgraded Google stock and on we go.

Google are clearly at fault, and as any media owner should do, they have taken responsibility for these events. There are though various rumblings around the central story which are interesting.

First up, the role of the news media. For months those of us sitting on the periphery have longed for someone in the news media to fight back. Their expensively-produced content is being exploited, at virtually zero return, in the dubious name of ‘reach’. As a result, serious journalism is coming close to being driven to extinction by the giant platforms. Something had to be done.

So, it’s good to see ‘The Times’ and ‘The Guardian’ in particular at the vanguard of publicising and following-up on this story. Whether it’s really worthy of a front-page lead in ‘The Times’ might be open to question but you get the sense that someone at News UK has had enough of being exploited.

Next, and this might be a function of where I am sitting, this does seem to have started as a strangely UK-centric story. Google and YouTube are of course global businesses so how come this is only now being seen as a big deal in the US, let alone elsewhere? How come the Google EMEA boss is taking all the flak?

Finally, what of the agencies? If they were as good as they claim technologically shouldn’t they have seen at least the possibility of this coming? After all, these vile videos have been around on YouTube for years; they have even been used in news reports. Their existence is hardly a secret.

I appreciate Google’s algorithms keep changing but shouldn’t the agencies have insisted that whatever the changes there is no way these things should be supported by their clients’ ads?

Brand safety initiatives are a good thing, but presumably only as good as the access their creators are given to the platforms in the first place. Maybe the push for more open-ness should go beyond the field of measurement?

Brand safety apart, next time you read of this or that agency ‘investing millions’ in cutting edge technology to allow them to stay ahead you might ask yourself what went wrong this time?

More positively, and taking the bigger picture there’s the subtle but significant change in the words the agencies have chosen in discussing this.

As recently as last year I think it likely we would have read of ‘WPP pulling their money…’; now GroupM’s digital chief, Rob Norman tweets in reaction to a Sky story:

“GroupM warns Google over hate videos”. Inaccurate we explained the risks and offered the choice to the client”.

And this: “We are…giving the option and a degree of risk quantification. Have issued advisories on Snap, YT, Instagram soon”.

Of course, any thinking person in any agency or advertiser condemns the fact that these mis-placements can happen, but even in such an extreme case the agencies are right not to play the big ‘I am’ by acting unilaterally.

Agencies have been accused of occasionally forgetting that they’re there to act on behalf of their clients. Referencing, even indirectly, agency-wide deals undermines this fundamental role.

Let’s hope the traders get the memo. There’s more to media placement than an agency-wide trade involving money and impressions.

Mind you Havas were still playing the ‘look how important we are’ card: “Havas joins British government in pulling ad spending from Google and YouTube in UK”.

It’s not the agencies’ money; agencies advise, clients decide, something Havas Media’s Paul Frampton was happy to acknowledge when challenged.

The final lesson is around the importance of context. Alright, what’s happened on YouTube is a very extreme example and no doubt some programmatic guy somewhere will pop up and say that far and away the majority of placements are fine but that’s not really good enough.

When programmatic placement goes wrong it can cause a great deal of reputational damage. These YouTube cases may be extreme but they’re not by any means the only incidents of automation leading to inappropriate placements (‘Private Eye’ runs a regular feature, Malgorithms with hilarious (or not-so-hilarious examples) of ads appearing in quite the wrong place).

Smart proponents of a programmatic future know there’s still work to be done.

Right now, automating online placements leads to a commoditisation of media focussed on the most basic metrics, and ignoring the light and shade delivered by context.

Yes, programmatic can and will bring benefits but we would be wise never to forget the human skills involved in ensuring the most effective use of media channels.

Those selling programmatic-tomorrow-if-not-sooner solutions would do well to keep a sense of perspective, and spare us their extravagant and overblown claims of a future dominated by general automated wonderfulness.

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