YouTube ad controversy: Agencies should take responsibility

The move to boycott advertising on YouTube has crossed the Atlantic, with brands in the US now also pulling their messaging from the video platform. Big names such as AT&T, Walmart and Pepsi joined companies from Europe, including the BBC, The Guardian, Audi, L'Oréal and Toyota, in walking the talk when it comes to brand safety. The discontent comes after The Times reported that advertising from big name brands is appearing on YouTube alongside videos espousing hate speech, racism and even terrorism.

Let’s be clear, content such as this should not feature on a public platform such as YouTube, especially with the values professed by its parent company, Google. But not as widely discussed is the lack of responsibility from the advertising agencies to protect the brand values of the companies whose campaigns they have booked. 

YouTube receives approximately 400 hours of new video footage every minute and, though still not acceptable, it’s easy to see how offensive content can slip through. However, advertising agencies and marketers cannot simply shift blame to Google, since they should have paid more attention to targeting the correct content. It’s clear now that simply trusting that ads will appear on appropriate videos is not enough. Agencies must implement better audience segmentation and negative phrases in their campaigns, which should go a long way towards protecting clients against potential brand disasters such as this.

In addressing the scandal, Google’s chief business officer Philipp Schindler announced a number of steps the company will be taking, which includes providing improved control to manage exclusions, as well as safer default settings for better brand alignment. This will make life a lot easier for account managers, but must not be considered a panacea. Instead, YouTube’s new controls highlight the fact that final responsibility rests with the agency.

The same holds true for Google’s other online advertising service – GDN. If agencies don’t set up their campaigns thoroughly and stipulate where messaging is being run, they will likely appear on websites on which brands do not want to be seen.

Part of the problem is that the digital ad revenue model is new and in such demand that the average online campaign manager has very little experience within the advertising world as a whole. Though they are good at optimising media spend to keywords and platforms that drive clicks, they are likely unaware of the broader implications a brand may face through aspects such as questionable brand alignment. Many have not done the required research to identify negative terms around other topics beyond their immediate competitors.

While Google and YouTube must be held responsible when the advertising platforms they are providing allow the spread of negative values, blaming them exclusively when things go awry is not the answer. As digital advertising, and the platforms it proliferates on, continue to mature, issues will pop up from time to time – one only needs to look at the recent controversy surrounding Facebook and the spread of fake news. Good campaign managers must have an ear to the ground, always mindful of the fact that there will be more kinks to be ironed out. Ultimately, it will be in their own interest if they take more concerted responsibility for the wellbeing of their clients’ brands.

This article was first published by the Financial Mail.