GroupM’s John Montgomery on the so-called ‘YouTube ban’, brand safety, viewability and more
Excerpts from an interview in ET Brand Equity with GroupM’s global EVP - brand safety
The media giant’s EVP in charge of brand safety on why viewability matters, the trouble with ad blocking and what marketers should be focusing on when it comes to getting the most out of their digital spends.
How did you come by your present role? What made you the most suitable candidate?
I was the logical choice since I’d been engaged in brand safety. I headed digital ops in North America. With the scale of digital, the VC money and ad tech flowing into New York in particular and the US at large, we identified areas of brand safety and began mitigating those over time. We didn’t suddenly start this in September last year. We’d been doing it for 8 years.
There came a time when we said, this has been very good for us and our clients in the US, but what about the international situation? It was natural that the bosses looked to me and said, ‘How can we harmonise the work we are doing there?’ The media was writing about brand safety and trying to find how it was applicable to their own markets. And so CMOs and CEOs wanted to know how their agencies were helping solve these issues.
How has the role evolved since you started off? What have been the key achievements?
By December, we launched a global viewability standard. We were the first organisation to do that. I wouldn’t call it an achievement since there’s an enormous amount of work to do. We are rolling it out as we speak, but the fact that we have one standard across the world, means that if one of our global clients wants to know what the viewability is in a particular country, we will be able to measure it against a single standard. The other area of achievement has been all of our agencies have taken to brand safety as a whole and are rolling it out: mainly aspects like non-human traffic, viewability and contextual brand safety.
The recent controversy about ads being hosted next to controversial content (aka contextual brand safety) really brought brand safety into the spotlight. How did it affect you?
It changed my life! We were always concerned about contextual brand safety. We are doing over a trillion impressions every day. For one impression to sneak through is probably expected. But it’s our job to ensure we put technology in place to mitigate against that. And we have to educate our clients.
It has made us work with Google to ensure they have better controls and filters. Already since February, many changes have been made.
But whatever we do, in uncurated social networks there’s never a 100% guarantee. All you need is one impression to cut through and one journalist to see it and say ‘that would be a good headline.’ A lot of journalists around the world are scouring inappropriate sites pushing refresh all the time, to see if they can get a screengrab of one of the ads that is close to that.
You were of the opinion that YouTube handled the crisis well. What do you believe it did right and what could it have done better?
In such a situation, you are never responding fast enough. If you think of the scale of the problem, trying to get your head around that is a monster. I wasn’t so much worried about their apologies as I was about action. Rather than issue recriminations and threats, our chief digital officer Rob Norman sat with Phil Schindler (Google’s chief business officer) and said ‘What can we do about this? How can we help and how can we make it safer?’
What they did right was to take it extremely seriously. For the first time, they let a third party vendor like Open Slate in to start scoring their content to make it safer. They’ve also raised the impression flow before they monetise. Earlier they monetised every site. Even some small inappropriate sites could gain some revenue. Incidentally, we think all the terrorist sites put together got about 50 pounds. They’ve raised the floor to 10,000 impressions, before they start monetising.
If they’d done that before, they’d have caught 90% of the bad sites.
What I’d still like them to do is to have more third party tags so we are able to block our advertising, before it even appears next to controversial content. I’m frankly not that interested in tags that allow you to report it after the event.
Considering you were in the middle of the storm, what was your advice like to key clients and agencies across the network?
We talked to clients literally one by one to assess what their risk profile was. It was not me, all the time. Things were happening too quickly. We explained to them what could go wrong and were they willing to take that risk? Many were not and paused the advertising. A number are considering putting a toe back in the water again, but now with enhanced safety controls like whitelists and the additional Google controls. They’ve improved their filters, allowed things like Open Slate which works in English at the moment, but which will extend to other languages soon.
Do you think the decision to suspend advertising was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction?
If I was the custodian of a venerable brand and I was worried about the reputational harm that could be done, comparing that to the risk of under-delivering on a campaign, it was justified they paused the advertising. The media used words like “pulled out” and “boycotted.” In our experience it was a rational decision based on a lot of discussion. We can’t make a blanket recommendation. It’s a brand by brand discussion.
How open are the Chinese networks to third party monitoring? Is this as serious an issue there as it is elsewhere?
We don’t know. That’s the problem right? We don’t have visibility in there. (But) I do think those large networks are starting to listen. A lot of them understand the need for more transparency. They know they will get more advertising support and trust. It’s just the beginning of the process. If we get trust by certifying the technology, it will be a very good first step. I had a few very good meetings a couple of weeks ago in Beijing. They’d like a tripartite client publisher and agency solution.
What are some of the trends when it comes to ad blocking?
We don’t have reliable data in Asia, but based on what we’ve heard and the importance of mobile, it is something you should be concerned about. It may have stabilised in Europe. One of the main reasons is because publishers have responded by denying access to content, which is a worry as well. It’s treating the symptom instead of the cause. The cause is bad user experience. We are on the steering committee of the Coalition for Better Ads, trying to fix the cause.
The coalition together with its members did a large scale piece of research — 25000 consumers and 5000 formats — to discover what the people found most irritating. We came up with 12 different standards that should not be used, in order to help with the user experience. It was deemed those contribute to ad blocking.
Google in their wisdom have introduced a beta scheme, where, in the latest Chrome browser, you can block those formats. I think that’s the right approach. This should help us address latency and frequency management. Hopefully, we can score the quality of a site based on a whole bunch of factors: not use a publisher unless they have a score over 60, for instance. We could award publishers for better quality, the way we award them for better viewability. Once money moves around, it will give people the incentive to lift the quality of their sites.
Make better ads has always struck me as a slightly glib solution. Assuming I already have an ad blocker and am not seeing any ads, however well or poorly designed, what’s the workaround?
It’s the start of a conversation between content owner and (someone who is using) an ad blocker. The ad blocker still wants to access content. They may go on to a news site and will be communicated to by the site that says ‘we have improved the advertising experience measurably. We’d like you to try it out and see.’ And then if they persist with blocking, the publisher has the moral right to deny access to content.
I do think it needs to be done in the right order. Fix the experience and then have a dialogue. But in most places they just have a dialogue.
Do you know China resolved this? It’s a brilliant solution
Please do tell
The government banned ad blockers. (Laughs) Problem solved!
While ads appearing against controversial content got the most press, which areas of brand safety do you believe are the most critical?
Viewability and non-human traffic. Globally, the level of viewability is 50%. If you can lift it to 60% it’s a 20% lift in quality. If you take fraud down from 10% to 2% it’s an 8% increase in the quality. The more viewable inventory is and the larger your access, the more you can sell against it. In the US, when we set our viewability standards, we obsessively optimised the viewable inventory. We managed to lift the level of video viewability against our very high standard from 18% to 55%. A 150% increase in value that was amazing! That’s taking back an enormous amount of value and minimising opportunity cost.
The fact that it is 50% viewable isn’t a weakness in digital. Every medium has a viewability issue. We just don’t know what it is. In digital we can measure mitigate and optimise. Fraud is less complicated and most egregious because it’s criminal.
Contextual brand safety is more about reputational damage. It’s harder to put a value to it. It doesn’t cost you anything until your brand lands on the front page of the London Times, and then it costs you a lot!
How did you zero in on @taxidodger as your Twitter handle?
There’s a rational edge to that. I drive a motorcycle to work. There are yellow taxis in New York trying to knock me down at every opportunity. (The id) was a fun thing since that’s what I do every day.
Is there a preferred brand of motorcycle? Are you a secret Hells Angels or something?
(Laughs) I have a BMW for an interesting reason. The roads in New York are so bad, I have to ride an offroad Enduro bike to cope. It’s never seen a dirt road in its life, but I require an offroad motorcycle. The roads are worse than the ones in Mumbai
Speaking of which, I’m sure there are a lot of people here who’ve wanted to sign up on Twitter with @taxidodger and are probably very angry to see its already been taken.
(Laughs) This is my first visit here. The traffic was a real education. I came in from the airport at 11 in the night and it wasn’t even that busy, but it was busy enough. It was astonishing how any of the motorcyclists got to where they were going, alive. And without helmets to boot!