"Nobody Asks Us To Block The News": Interview with an Ad Tech Seller

An advertising sales director tells us why their clients want to be on the news: It's just better ROI.

Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter exploring how marketers broke society (and how we can fix it.)

Big news! 🎉 We are excited to announce that we have received a Shuttleworth Foundation Flash Grant. The grant is given out by Shuttleworth Fellows to individuals they would like to support/reward/encourage in their work for social good. They’ve asked us to put up this logo on our newsletter, which we are so happy to do. Thank you Shuttleworth!

Last week, BRANDED was also featured in the Deutsche Welle story, “Coronavirus: When using the c-word gets you blacklisted.

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Advice worth throwing away

We are staring blankly at Integral Ad Science CEO Lisa Utzschneider’s mid-pandemic suggestion that marketers advertise on happy pandemic news only:

We work with marketers and say “Hey, you know what?” We could actually, based on sentiment of the content, be able to segment out content that’s more positive or ‘hero-related content’ tied to coronavirus.”

Does anyone know what she’s talking about?

To date, no C-suite executive at any ad verification company peddling “sentiment analysis” (not even this one) has been able to articulate what problem they’re trying to solve by keeping your ads away from bad news. When asked, none have been able to provide an example of a brand that has suffered damages or loss of revenue as a result of serving ads on negative or coronavirus-related news.

The above advice is extremely harmful to the news industry and is keeping marketers away from their most engaged audiences.

What do ad experts think of brand safety? We asked one.

Reputable news is an entirely brand suitable environment. We recently spoke with a sales director at a large programmatic company who works with travel and healthcare sector clients that do it all the time. They asked to remain anonymous. We have edited this interview for length and clarity.

Thank you for talking to us! We understand you work at a large programmatic company that runs its own exchange. What should advertisers know about advertising on quality news sites?

That’s right. I work with a lot of travel brands, visitor bureaus and tourism boards. They’re an advanced vertical that understands their audience. They know how to attribute bookings and conversions to their advertising more than others. 

What they’ve found is that people who are spending money in this segment - people with disposable income - are spending time on quality news sites and journalism. They’re going to the New York Times, reading it, engaging with the content and really getting themselves into it. 

You work with travel industry clients. The ad tech industry has said your vertical is particularly at risk next to bad or sad news. What are your thoughts on that? 

I think [brand safety tech companies] are making more of a deal of this than their clients are. If I’m going to go look at a premium site or any news site, 90% of that content is going to be COVID-related now. I don’t know how you can avoid it. 

I haven’t seen numbers to support [not running next to COVID content]. I myself don't push it and don’t advise that sort of blacklisting. My own clients are not coming to me saying “let’s blacklist these words.” If they do, they’re talking about things like Breitbart. 

Could we talk pre-COVID? What was stopping brands advertising on bad news or sad news before Corona hit? 

It wasn’t that much of a thing. Once in a blue moon I’d hear about it, but by no means a regular thing. Not at all.

That’s curious to me because the reports that are coming from brand safety vendors… they’re saying that brands are at risk when they’re next to bad news. 

Honestly, I’ve been racking my brain. I’ve been taking these conversations to my clients too. I just don’t see it. 

The issue does come up with [health brands], but not because they don’t want to be seen on bad news. It’s because the content might not be related to the health context that we want. If we’re marketing heart medication for example, we wouldn’t want to be next to say, content around a rom com movie review. Relevance is the issue there.

Your clients are not worried about being next to bad or sad news? 

Myself and my team have probably done 50 RFPs related to travel - from national to local. Not one time has bad news come up as something that they want to block against. Instead, they’re focusing on where the audience wants to be. 

Where does the audience want to be? 

The audience wants to be where they are engaging with content already. They’re going to be engaging with categories of content that reflects their own demographics.

How do you filter out fringe disinformation outlets? 

We just filter them out. 

There are plenty of sites in our exchange that they spend time with that are outside of the hate sites. They want to read guns and ammo? That’s fine. It’s not Breitbart. People who read disinfo sites are not one-dimensional people - these are people who have interests outside of awful fake news. So, that’s where we’re gonna go. 

At BRANDED, we talk about how important it is to fund news. Does hard news have a better ROI? 

Oh yeah, 100%. 1000%. 

We’d love some data. 

We generally look at CTR (click-through rates) over a whitelist of 1000-1500 sites. 

When we bring the whitelist down to say, the top 100 publishers, obviously that makes your costs go up a bit, but your CTR is going to lift to almost a 1% rate, which is very comparable to social. And your time spent on page jumps from 2 mins and starts to reach almost 3-4 minutes. 

As the quality of hard news goes up, the metrics go up. End of story. It’s always been like this. In the past 2-3 years, it’s become even more apparent.

Advertisers don’t like to spend a lot on clicks. How do you compete against competitors who promise cheap rates? 

The way that I focus on this is the quality of the audience itself. This goes up with your defined audience that you’re trying to get a hold of. Health clients will pay massive rates - $20 CPM rates - to reach direct-to-consumer customers. They just want to know they’re reaching that audience. They want to know their audience quality is high. 

If someone starts saying, “Hey I can get something cheaper over there”, I can object to that in  my sleep. It’s about quality. It’s about reputable technologies.

What do you think of DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science’s public statements regarding hard news (IAS’s CEO recently said not to block hard news, but to use their semantic analysis technology to stay away from bad content)?

It’s really frustrating.  I don’t know what’s behind it. I don’t know what they’re talking about sometimes. When I read certain things, it goes against what I’m telling my clients and what works for my clients. 

There is a civic duty here. Media serves an important role and our advertisers support what they do. If we’re going to start having ad dollars spent on things that are away from the hard news, that’s really hurting society. To me, morality is a big issue.

That will come up with clients when we talk about this stuff over beers. My clients understand this too. They understand the importance of supporting media. That’s not an abstract concept to them.

Not only do I stress it, but again, the numbers back it up. We have the luxury of being able to have that opinion and numbers to back it up. 

What needs to change in the world? 

We cannot have half of the country thinking that the coronavirus is a hoax while the other half thinks it’s a very serious problem.

How can marketers change that? 

It would be wonderful if they said, “In this RFP, I want to make sure we’re on local sites.” They kind of do, in the sense that they say they want to reach certain geographic regions. But it would be wonderful if they said, I want to be on the Oregonian or the Seattle Times.  

What I’m worried about is local news. They’re taking a massive, massive hit. 

What’s in the RFPs? 

What you’re going to find is a very uniform, reasonable set of demands. No one is saying “keep me away from hard news. No one is saying “I want to go to people who read fake stuff, or people reading the horoscopes.” No one is saying that.

Do you have anything else you’d add?

At the end of the day, the promise of programmatic is that you’re reaching an audience. And, you go where they are — and that’s at a reputable source.

The ROI of advertising on the news is higher than other sources. The more reputable the news organization, the higher the engagement rate

So, if you’re a marketer, what can you do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Move your advertising in-house. We’re hearing from ad tech that this is a growing trend. Brands are not putting up with lack of transparency around their ad buy any longer.

  2. Check your site lists. Where are you advertising? Where are you not advertising?

  3. Check your blocklists. What words are you blocking? Is your blocklist ridiculously long? 

  4. Ensure you’re advertising on reputable news sites. If you don’t know how to whitelist the news, speak to your ad agency. If they’re not sure how, or if they are using too many ad exchanges to guarantee that the whitelist will work (a topic for another time) then reassess your relationship with them. If you’re writing RFP’s for ad management, list local news organizations where your ads would be appropriate.

Your ads are your ads. Take back control over where they go.

Thanks for reading, see you next time!

Nandini and Claire 


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