Panel discussion: “Digital Advertising is a teenager that is ruling the house - It needs discipline”

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In a panel discussion at the News UK Chateau as part of Cannes Lions, BT chief marketing officer Zaid al-Qassab defended the digital advertising industry and its recent problems over brand safety by describing it as a “teenager, and teenagers have problems as they grow up”. “I don’t have an issue with discovering problems and fixing them as we grow as a digital advertising industry,” al-Qassab said. “I have a problem if people don’t act to fix things, and we’ve seen [a] really good reaction from the likes of Google this year.”

The Times’ head of investigations, Alexi Mostrous, who has led the newspaper’s coverage of digital ads funding extremism on YouTube and Facebook, contested the teenager comparison. “The problem with the teenager analogy is [that] Google and Facebook are so powerful now, and make so much money, that if you are going to call them teenagers, then you also need to recognise that the teenagers are ruling the house,” he said.

“There’s a problem there with accountability and how to scrutinise an industry that is young and developing very fast, but yet it is so powerful monetarily. It is hugely important to get the regulatory environment right,” he added.

Mostrous argued that it was important to protect fundamental internet freedoms but advocated introducing “soft” regulatory measures. For example, he proposed Google and Facebook should be held liable if they fail to take down extremist content within an appropriate timeframe, after warnings from either their own internal systems or the police.


Johnny Hornby, chief executive of The&Partnership, contended that the measures put in place by Google are “mitigation” to the controversy over brand safety, and the company owes it to advertisers to create a safe environment for them to place their ads in.

He proposed YouTube should ad-enable only content that has had 500,000 views. Hornby also criticised it for not allowing advertisers to use thirdparty ad-verification software . He added that Google’s claim that 400 hours of content are uploaded to YouTube per minute is not an excuse; in fact, it “is just making the problem bigger”.

Hornby added: “As agencies, we want to be able to verify the data within their walled gardens, both for brand safety and viewability, so we can gauge what has and hasn’t been watched.”

Al-Qassab said it is a “fact of life” that using programmatic means advertisers will not be fully aware of exactly where all their ads appear. “Perhaps some of the filters and aspects were not as complete as we expected,” he explained. “Google has hurriedly done something about that.”

Jenny Biggam, founder of independent media agency the7stars, agreed that “everybody knew there were risks and the system could never be 100% foolproof”.

She added: “Google’s initial response was poor – we first got a blog post and that is something absolutely not appropriate to the scale of the problem, but subsequently their response has been good.”

The&Partnership’s M/SIX agency has been advising its clients not to use YouTube since the turn of the year for brand safety reasons.

In response to a question on whether this had an impact on clients’ ad campaigns, Hornby claimed that “you can safely come off YouTube” and still put together an effective campaign that achieves the same levels of cost per acquisition. For one client that still wanted to target 16- to 24-year-old consumers, the agency placed the ads non-programmatically.


For its part, News UK is focusing on programmatic, and Mostrous accepted that programmatic is key to the future success of The Times. He argued that the seismic news events of the past two years have meant that people are looking for trusted content providers.

“There is different media providing news to different people and we have to adapt to that to try to stay ahead. This means not only in terms of offering programmatic tools provided by Facebook and Google, but also to innovate on subscription models to make sure the younger generation is also reading our content,” Mostrous said.

He concluded by issuing a stark warning that even if Facebook and Google overcome the issue of ads appearing alongside extremist content, they cannot relax, as their algorithms create another problem.

“What I found with my fake profile on both YouTube and Facebook is the algorithms can work, so that if you are interested in terrorism or far-right politics, and have enough friends also interested in those areas, you reach a tipping point where all you are getting is jihadist content and all the friend requests were pictures of jihadis holding up ISIS flags,” he explained.

“The same software that is being used very legitimately to grow these platforms is being exploited by something that is very serious.”

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