- A new alliance spanning ad and tech world actors to improve digital safety has some in the ad world worried and confused.
- The Global Alliance for Responsible Media, which includes GroupM, Unilever, Facebook, and Google was announced last week at Cannes as talk of breaking up tech companies grows louder and governments seek to regulate content on their platforms.
- Some critics say this is a good first step to make the internet safe for advertisers and users, but also worry that certain stakeholders were left out and question putting tech companies in charge of fixing the problem they created.
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A new alliance spanning advertisers, agencies, and tech giants including WPP’s GroupM, Unilever, Facebook, and Google formed this week to improve digital safety. It has some in the ad world worried.
To recap: The Global Alliance for Responsible Media was announced last week at the Cannes Lions Festival as talk of breaking up tech companies grows louder and governments in the UK, Germany, and elsewhere seek to regulate content on their platforms. The alliance, founded by Brussels-based World Federation of Advertisers members, is significant in that it’s the biggest of its kind. Its first order of business was to create a working group to prioritize steps to create actions, processes, and protocols that would prevent nefarious content from spreading online, Axios reported.
Some industry insiders say this is a good first step to make the internet safe for advertisers and users — even Jason Kint, head of publisher trade group Digital Content Next and a regular critic of Google and Facebook, gave it mild praise.
To be sure, it’s significant to have companies of this size work together. They have a lot at stake in fixing digital advertising. And some see it as important for the industry’s biggest and most visible marketers like Procter & Gamble and Unilever to be pushing for online safety.
“Members of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media recognize the role that advertisers can play in collectively pushing to improve the safety of online environments,” read the alliance’s announcement. “Together, they are collaborating with publishers and platforms to do more to address harmful and misleading media environments; and to develop and deliver against a concrete set of actions, processes and protocols for protecting brands.”
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“It’s pretty clear advertisers are taking more control and voting with their wallets and voices,” said Robin Steinberg, former Publicis investment lead. “The key would be to consistently do this in order to get all onboard. If they are going to continue to spend and be a key partner to the platforms, there must be updated responsible business practices put in place. There are major implications to their brands and overall business putting them at risk.”
‘Fox guarding the henhouse’
But some see the idea of tech companies being involved in fixing the problem of toxic content they helped spread as problematic. After all, it was just this week that Facebook was the subject of a scathing report in The Verge that the moderators it contracted with to weed out unsavory content on its platform were working under deplorable conditions.
“It feels a little of the fox and henhouse,” said Greg Paull, principal at R3 Worldwide, a consulting company to marketers. “Facebook is going to need to work overtime to really prove they are finally working in the interests of their revenue sources.”
One of the goals of the alliance is to come up with a standard for all the platforms, which currently all have different rules. But coming up with one standard for all online content that would be considered “safe” to all brands seems like a tall if not impossible task.
Facebook seems to recognize it can’t act alone, as it’s calling for an industry standard to regulate online speech. “We want regulation in the areas of brand safety and content moderation,” its head of sales Carolyn Everson said at an event announcing the alliance.
One stakeholder that knows something about content standards are publishers. But despite being mentioned in the announcement, traditional publishers were all but left out of the alliance, which was another source of confusion. The original announcement listed 17 advertisers. Under media companies, the only company with a traditional media arm listed was Verizon, parent of AOL and HuffPost; the others were, confusingly, considered by most to be tech companies. NBCUniversal was listed as being part of the alliance, but in its role as an advertiser, not a media company.
Publishers were left out of the alliance
Missing from the WFA alliance are publisher-only trade groups like the News Media Alliance and Digital Content Next.
David Chavern, head of the News Media Alliance, which counts The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal parent News Corp as members, said his organization wasn’t asked to join.
“It doesn’t make sense that advertisers would be involved with content standards when it’s the tech companies policies and algorithm that need to be fixed,” Chavern said. “It seems to be entirely a conversation between the advertisers and tech companies, though they’re not the only ones impacted. There seems to be a role for the media companies, because we create brand-safe content.”
The reaction reflects the vast power the tech giants have amassed, the advertisers and their agencies that support them, and the interconnectedness between the two sides. The concern is that the ad side is too invested in the platforms to push for any meaningful change. (Advertisers in the alliance for their part insist they’re looking out for consumers, not themselves.)
Facebook was the third-biggest destination for top holding company WPP’s clients’ spending in 2017. Unilever and Mars, two of the companies in the alliance that have also been making the interview rounds to talk it up, are two of WPP’s biggest clients.
The tech giants in turn are big supporters of ad trade organizations like the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which is part of the alliance. WPP’s former head Sir Martin Sorrell himself said last year that the backlash against Facebook hasn’t hurt it with advertisers; the current WPP chief Mark Read recently argued against breaking up the tech companies.
It was GroupM that effectively set the industry standard for how much an ad has to be in view for it to be counted as a view. Then it loosened its standards for social media as Facebook and other social platforms started flooding their feeds with video.
Facebook declined to comment. Business Insider asked GroupM and the WFA for comment.
It’s against this backdrop that some skeptics doubt that such an alliance is the way to clean up the digital sphere.
“Global advertisers who think this glorified acronym will make a difference is most disheartening,” said one. “They could get more done by actually sticking to their guns and holding back their investments, which might actually force the platforms to behave like media companies, which they of course are.”
Ian Schafer, cofounder and CEO of Kindred, a company that connects influencers and non-profits, and former CEO of the ad agency Deep Focus, gave top marketers credit for taking the lead in solving the problem of toxic online content.
But he also said pressure needs to be applied by activists like Sleeping Giants, which call out objectionable content on tech platforms, he said. And alienating publishers would be “a big mistake.”
“You need friction to move forward,” he said.
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