YouTube Brand Safety: CEO Loren Rochelle's POV

Are Advertisers Ever Safe?
Loren Rochelle

Now more than ever before, brand safety is top-of-mind for advertisers. The latest brand safety issue on YouTube involving minors resulted in brands like Disney and Nestlé leaving the platform. Brands remaining on YouTube are only left with questions. Could this happen to me? Will there ever be a fix? How do we know if it’s safe?

As a provider of brand safety solutions, NOM has a unique perspective on the situation. We sat down with our CEO & Co-founder Loren Rochelle to get a read on what all of this means for the future of digital advertising.

Q: Will brands change how they approach advertising on YouTube if these kinds of issues continue to happen?

A: Brands will continue to advertise on YouTube, but I think we'll see a growing trend of advertisers pausing their spend initially to evaluate and audit their current brand safety strategy. These recent issues only perpetuate the fear, distrust, and anxiety that brands have recently had in running their media on YouTube. The reality is, brands understand the value and importance of YouTube, so the decision to remove themselves entirely is a difficult one. It can be stressful, and advertisers need to weigh the risks—either potentially run in front of objectionable content or risk losing opportunities for customer engagement.

Q: Has the industry shifted its approach to brand safety in the past few years?

A: Ad alignment and brand safety have been an issue on the YouTube platform for many years. Brands pause their advertising temporarily but are back on the platform within months, sometimes weeks, because YouTube is where their audience is.

For the first time in my experience, we’ve seen some accountability from the platform and from brands. There is a proliferation of companies who now claim brand safety as a service they provide; however, it’s necessary to properly evaluate these business claims to ensure they’re valid and not opportunistic. I mentioned this in the Fast Company article, “Brands Are Finally Realizing They’ll Never Be 100% Safe on YouTube,” that the problem requires a multi-solution approach, not just one. We like the garden metaphor because it’s very fitting here. Similar to tending to a garden, true brand safety requires consistent maintenance and care.

In the short-term, YouTube has tried to extinguish the latest brand safety problem by removing channels, blocking inappropriate comments, and changing the discoverability of some videos while removing other videos entirely. For the longer term, YouTube has built some brand safety tools including a content rating system and sensitive content categories exclusions, but without proper data and a sophisticated understanding of how their ad platform works, the tools cannot be properly leveraged. For YouTube to truly solve this problem, they would need to break the entire system, and that’s just not feasible. When brand safety issues have come up in the past, YouTube does it’s best to try to solve the problems. However, the root issue is a foundational one–the platform is simply not set up for brand safety. Therefore, any efforts for YouTube to fix the problem are a bandaid. This is why it’s necessary for third-party measurement to exist: to protect advertisers and their consumers from objectionable content. Third parties create a mutually beneficial relationship for everyone–protecting the brand, protecting the consumer, and allowing advertisers to feel comfortable and safe spending more on the platform.

Q: Can brand safety ever be solved on YouTube?

A: This will most likely be an ongoing problem for YouTube and brands. I don’t foresee YouTube being able to “solve” the problem entirely by themselves. After all, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day. Most of that content is user-generated, so there are always going to be factors that are outside of the platform’s control. Controlling what can be uploaded to YouTube would alienate the very users that brands rely on, which runs the risk of turning people off from the platform entirely. That said, in the case of Matt Watson’s video, this is a tragedy and YouTube has a responsibility to put procedures in place to protect its users. It’s not likely that one solution alone will work and this is where third-party verification and safety partners for media delivery become necessary.

Q: Have you seen brands that previously discontinued advertising on YouTube return to the platform?

A: Yes. YouTube is extremely valuable to brands and their users. It has become our generation's destination for knowledge and expression. Brands understand that, despite its shortcomings, YouTube is a necessary platform to reach their consumers.

It seems we have lurched from crisis to crisis and it’s become a game of Whack-A-Mole. New technology and algorithms bring new problems. YouTube will continue to seek solutions as the industry changes over time, and some brands will continue to accept these while others won’t. As we move forward, it will be paramount for brands to not only understand where they're running their ads but to effectively measure the appropriateness and safety of the videos they are running their ads against. Proper measurement and true transparency are vital to solving this problem. It’s in a brand’s (and frankly, YouTube’s) best interest to seek third-party safety partners to ensure these solutions work as they’re intended and can be effectively measured.

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