Google at a Crossroads

It all started when the London Times published an investigative piece a couple of weeks ago about ads from prominent brands appearing on terrorist sites and alongside other types of objectionable content. Of course this has been going on for years, at least since the beginning of programmatic buying, but all of a sudden brand safety leapt to the front of advertisers’ consciousness and they began pulling out of Google sites like YouTube and the Google display network. And these are not minor brands; they’re WalMart, Pepsi, Starbucks, Coke and other powerhouses.

Quite often, these little volcanoes erupt in the digital advertising world and brands make noise about something they don’t like. But then the furor dies down and things go back to “normal.” The Wall Street Journal, however, says this is the beginning of something new for the Google ad business, because marketers have been here too many times before, and they really can’t fall back on the excuse that they don’t know what they’re buying. Behind every marketer who may not understand, there’s an agency that does, and the agencies should know better.

Despite Google’s apologies and promise of new tools, ads were still on hate sites, fake sites created by bots, and pornography last week, which prompted the Journal to put a couple of veteran reporters on this lingering story.  CEOs and CMOs of big companies are now involved, and perhaps because of potential implications of being linked to terrorist sites, Google is going to have to make some changes.

And not just Google alone. When you are going for  scale, it is almost impossible to perfectly police what is being bought. Or so it is said. But the research done by the Journal reporters seemed to point to willful blindness. It does seem incredible that big companies, either the advertisers or Google itself, can’t type in some search terms and find out whether their brand ads are still running on hate sites.

This led reporter Suzanne Vranica to say that no one in the industry is really incentivized to fix problems like these when they occur, because everybody gets paid. The publishers get paid, the holding companies try to push as much inventory through these platforms as possible so they’ll get paid, and the advertisers have the advantage of cheap ads. So throughout programmatic’s history, people on all sides of the supply chain have simply looked the other way at ad fraud.

Encouraging terrorism, however, is a horse of a different color, especially after being seen on fake news sites during the election got them worried. Just after fake news subsided as a concern, the fear of seeing your brand in the headlines for funding terrorism arose for these companies, many of whom are public.

Admittedly, in the back of every advertiser’s mind is the reality that they’re getting what they pay for when they buy cheap ads, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn on Google and Facebook to save their own reputations. They are coming to realize that they helped build these platforms and they are really the people who pay the bills. The walled gardens are not giving them the data they need, and at the end of the day, that’s the main issue. The advertisers ceded their power, and now they are demanding it back.