Every marketer knows that brand image is a precious thing—it takes patience and vision to build, but an unexpected wrong move could swiftly deteriorate that reputation. Because of this, brand safety is a universal issue that all brand marketers need to address and accommodate in their media and communications plans.

Fortunately, being “brand safe” doesn’t have to mean being “brand boring.” As the media landscape matures, so do the brand safety solutions and channel-specific innovations. In particular, the explosive growth of audio consumption and advertising is paving the way for greater channel innovation along with greater peace of mind for many marketers.

Ad Results Media sat down with three industry experts to discuss brand safety in the audio space and get their advice on how best to navigate the present and future. Our panel included John Montgomery, EVP of global brand safety at GroupM; Marshall Williams, the CEO of Ad Results Media; and Mainardo de Nardis, the former CEO of OMD Worldwide and current board member and advisor at Ad Results Media.

ARM: Brand safety has been an industry hot topic for the past decade, so why does it seem so important right now? What is unique about the brand safety concerns in the current marketplace?

John Montgomery: Brand safety is different now than what the industry dealt with in the past—it's more complex and nuanced. The chances of an ad being placed adjacent to harmful content has been reduced—by orders of magnitude—because of the standards and technologies applied to the media-buying process. But now advertisers are genuinely concerned about supporting a toxic environment rife with hate speech, disinformation and divisive content. We need to address the broader issues of reducing harmful content and restoring trust rather than just brand safety per se.

Marshall Williams: I wholly agree the brand safety issues are markedly different today—the number of voices providing content has multiplied significantly. The barriers to entry in most channels are low, and that has allowed people to be heard that didn’t have a voice before. That also means the rules that long applied to the more established content groups don’t apply to them. The content is edgier, language is stronger and the opinions more visceral.

Mainardo de Nardis: Exactly! And as a result, trust in all information sources is at record low because information hygiene is very poor. Businesses and brands are expected to fill the void left by governments and other institutions and are being held to an even higher standard than before. They have to provide trustworthy content in a trusted environment to protect their role in society.

ARM: Podcasters, radio DJs and talk radio hosts all have one thing in common—they can be unpredictable. What are some approaches or marketplace solutions that can make their unpredictability more palatable to risk-averse advertisers?

Mainardo de Nardis: Podcast advertising currently provides highly effective brand safety measures for pre-produced ad content. Brands and agencies control the content and have the right to decide in which context to appear. Some platforms provide more control than others, but this right is unchallenged and lots of work goes into perfecting this process. Programmatic is harder and that’s where the industry needs to invest in safety solutions similar to the world of video.

John Montgomery: We need to take these safeguards even further. Advertisers do not want to be surprised by their ads appearing in or around content that they find unsuitable. For example, some brands may be fine with the odd expletive in a podcast, but others will feel that it does not fit with their image. More advertisers would likely use podcasts as an advertising vehicle if we gave them a predictable rating system and a choice of where to place their messaging.

Marshall Williams: If we work toward creating a brand safety index that is derived from all key variables relative to brand safety—this allows advertisers to know what they are getting into before they commit ad dollars. That’s what ARM is working to bring to the marketplace.

ARM: Each brand has its own perspective as to what is considered brand-safe for them. Should publishers, agencies and other service providers think about creating customized solutions for brands?

Marshall Williams: I like to use the term “brand suitability” in this context. We have clients who attempt to measure every dollar spent on a ROI basis, and they are not as concerned about the content that their ad messages are placed within—except for clearly out of bounds content. They will tolerate more profanity, more adult-related content and even stronger political opinion commentary if it yields a strong ROI. On the other hand, other clients are more conservative when it comes to controversial content. Each brand needs to decide what it finds to be suitable, and service providers need to provide customized and scalable solutions.

John Montgomery: I have found the focus has progressed to brand suitability as well. Brands and their agencies are pursuing the goal of placing their advertising near content that is both safe and contextually relevant, which not just protects brands but also increases effectiveness.

ARM: Is the risk worth the reward?

Mainardo de Nardis: A managed risk can be well worth the reward. Each brand must decide how tight it needs their risk framework to be—the tightest framework with very restrictive vetting criteria might penalize the potential reward. But this will be right for certain brands that need to live in a very low risk environment, like kids’ products or highly regulated industries like pharma. Others will accept more flexibility in exchange for spontaneity and a context that is suitable for the brand personality.

ARM: What is your best advice to brands about how to mitigate safety risks while still investing big in audio?

John Montgomery: Work with a specialist who understands this space, who has relationships with broadcasters and, where possible, has brand safety technology that allows brands to choose what content is most suitable.

Mainardo de Nardis: Understand the context. Learn from history. Have a strong relationship with the host and provide a clear and well explained safety framework. Mix and integrate host-based and produced ad content. Test, measure and optimize both audiences and context.

ARM: OK, let’s give the people what they came here for. What are your top predictions for the future of brand safety in the next 12 months?

John Montgomery: We will start talking more about brand suitability and less about brand safety, and we will focus our attention on restoring trust in information by addressing existential threats like disinformation and hate speech.

Mainardo de Nardis: Data will facilitate contextual planning, connecting with people in the right context for the brand. After years of optimizing audience creation, optimizing content and context will be the priority over the next few years. Brand safety data and measurement will continue to enable the growth of audio and solidify it as a key platform for all brands.

Marshall Williams: Audio is emotional. You can hear when someone is mad, happy, sad, energized, laughing, disappointed, etc. It’s a very emotionally transparent medium and that’s part of the reason it works so well for advertisers. But the audio space needs a solution for visibility, a tool that allows advertisers to understand what they are getting into before they spend their ad dollars. I predict we will have one in six months.

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