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UM’s brand safety officer: ‘Clients still prefer cheaper, risky environments’

UM Worldwide’s first global brand safety officer has issued a warning to marketers that if they want to advertise on secure websites, they’re going to have to pay for it.

Joshua Lowcock, who is also the agency’s chief digital and innovation officer, said many brands still preferred cheaper, but riskier, media environments despite an onslaught of brand safety scandals over the past two years.

Speaking to Mumbrella about the biggest barriers to improving brand safety, Lowcock said: “Clients prefer the cheaper inventory: not the cheapest, but there is a lot of pressure on price. There’s always that price trade-off; if you want cheaper media, you’re in a more risky environment.

“If I give a one-10 scale – one is very conservative and 10 is not caring where your ad goes – and a client says I want the price of 10 and the brand safety of a one, [they need to know] they’re mutually exclusive.”

Officially appointed last week, Lowcock’s new role will see him lead the 4A’s Advertiser Protection Bureau, a new committee aimed at addressing brand safety. Although situated in the United States, he said the committee’s work would have global effects.

“Brand safety doesn’t just affect one market,” he said. “It’s worldwide in nature, in scale and affects global partners. This role is aimed at holding partners globally accountable because right now when a brand safety issue occurs in one market, getting platform providers to respond in every region requires global executive oversight.

“I like to use the analogy of how banks treat credit card fraud. All of the banks cooperate on credit card intelligence because there is no competitive advantage to say we’re better at credit card fraud than the others. You would lose favour with consumers and credit cards in general.

“There is no advantage for media agencies to say: ‘We are more brand safe’. It hurts clients, publishers, ad tech platforms and it undermines consumer trust.”

Before joining UM in 2015, Lowcock has previously held roles at Mediavest in New York, the Australian media giant News Corp and Starcom in China.

His ascension to the new role follows on the footsteps of Bank of America and GroupM, who have become two of the latest leading media and marketing players to appoint brand safety officers.

The role has drawn some cynicism from across the industry, with Fergus Hay, the chief executive of Leagas Delaney, recently arguing that it ‘doesn’t take a brand safety officer to solve marketing’s ills’. Instead, he claimed the issue was “symptomatic of a network model that has put its own revenue growth ahead of its clients’ best interests”.

Responding to this, Lowcock said: ‘People are cynical about what anyone does in the industry, but it’s an unfair thing. Brand safety is not just an agency or a YouTube problem, it’s an industry one. But media agencies are in the best position to fix it because of our expertise.

“Brand safety is never going to go away. You might get to a 99 per cent risk-free environment, but because of the nature of the internet and the volume of content being produced, there will always be a need for this role.”

The industry movements come off the back of advertisers pulling millions of funds from YouTube over fears that their brands would appear alongside extremist views or hate speech.

However, in addition to appearing next to content such as terrorist videos, Lowcock argued cases involving news stories and “brand sensitivities” were just as important.

Discussing the recent appearance of a retargeted Qantas ad on a Sydney Morning Herald story covering a US airline accident, he said: “There’s the morally reprehensible content that you don’t want any advertising dollars to support and then there’s brand sensitivity issues – categories or topics brands don’t want to appear on.

“If you want an absolute brand safe environment, there is a cost-premium to that. There’s also a societal issue because when there’s a brand safety issue, it results in the ad being pulled and that affects the publishers involved.

“We need to find a way to manage brand safety that doesn’t just lead to turning off digital spend. Let’s turn off certain partners. But if you were to be totally brand safe, you would never advertise on news sites.”

Referencing  Facebook and Google, which have both come under severe criticism for their roles in fuelling brand safety issues, Lowcock added: ” They have significantly doubled down and addressed the issue.”

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