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Algorithms are not fool-proof: Google’s UK fiasco a wake-up call for marketers?

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Algorithms are not fool-proof: Google’s UK fiasco a wake-up call for marketers?

The latest controversy around Google’s ad placements next to extremist content in the UK has raised questions on the effective use of programmatic and above all, brand safety. Brands are now concerned that if Google, a leader in programmatic, can go wrong there is a large scope for such crises showing up again, especially in cases where small to medium digital marketing agencies are involved.

The controversy has taken a considerable toll on Google’s UK business too. Brands such as The Guardian, M&S, McDonald’s, L’Oréal, Audi, the BBC, Sainsbury’s, Argos and even the UK government have all recently pulled advertising out of Google. Some brand owners are even stating that it is unethical for a brand like Google to monetise hate speech and the tech giant needs to come clean on the controversy.

In a bid to address the concerns raised by brand marketers about brand safety, Google EMEA President, Business and Operations, Matt Brittin recently stated that the search giant wants to “raise the bar” for safe advertising by improving three key aspects of the service. He even stated that the tech giant is working to solve such issues as he said, “On YouTube we took 300 million videos out of ad monetisation because they weren’t appropriate for advertising last year, and 100,000s of sites out of the AdSense network. So we’re always looking at how we can make that safer and clearly we need to do more.”

Back home the controversy has become a much-debated subject among digital practitioners, most of them agreeing that blaming algorithms alone will not suffice. Sharing his thoughts on the significance of brand safety in a truly digital environment, Abhishek Joshi, VP and Head - Marketing & Analytics, Digital Business, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN), said, “There are different forms of brand safety measures which are being followed. Brand safety services were initially offered to agencies by dedicated tools and services but they are now increasingly embedded into ad servers, ad exchanges and ad networks solutions. They can also be embedded with ad visibility measurement tools. Brand safety is only a part of ad verification. The only worry is that it is an issue of online advertising because of ad networks and blind buying.”

For Sandeep Amar, CEO, Indian Express Digital, the idea of brand placement has its own complexities and challenges especially in a programmatic world. Commenting on the recent controversy he said, "Yes, brand placement is complex in a programmatic world. It's tough to guarantee the absolute safe placement. The ideal way is to use programmatic guaranteed deals on top publishers, to make sure that the brand ads are in a safe environment."

S. Swaminathan, CEO, Hansa Cequity, believes that programmatic techniques are still evolving and will get increasingly complex with time. He said, “Digital Marketing is not a perfect science but an evolving eco-system as technology adapts itself to conquer this beast for the marketing world and brands. By and large I believe brand safety measures continue to get only better over time. Digital marketing which is largely based on complex and scaled-up algorithms is using machine learning and advanced statistical and self-learning techniques. Programmatic techniques really match-up content to messaging to bidding. The usage of these techniques is itself maturing over the last decade and half and will increasingly get complex. For example, video analytics which is a part of the You Tube digital marketing stack, needs to triangulate images, voice and content and that is not an easy science.”

 “As far as programmatic buying is concerned, the benefits for advertisers are that they have a better chance of reaching their preferred audiences, rather than wasting ads on non-target audience members. Also, publishers gain the benefit of a fair valuation for their inventory based on the quality and attributes of the audience they are attracting. However, the downside is that advertisers may lose control over where their ads are placed, which could potentially compromise brand safety. The level of transparency varies among programmatic offerings,” added Joshi.

There is no doubt that the concerns around the latest controversy are far from over. According to Harish Bijoor, Brand-Expert & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., “This sure is a wake-up call. The attitude cannot be one of "blame it on the algorithm" and blame it on automation! Brands need to get more and more careful. This is important as the appearance of your brand next to content that is ostracised, can ostracise your brand in turn as well. Consumers are sensitive beings. The algorithm and advertising tech needs to recognise this as it digs deeper into its delivery choice, pick and metric. Algorithms need to not only be careful, but appear to be careful.”

 “Branding is a set of techniques designed to create cultural relevance and thereby creating a connect for a brand wherein digital marketing techniques have dramatically altered how culture works, thus brand safety clearly needs much more attention. Real time connect with consumers is important but evaluation of quality of content and the platform is equally important. We as an industry need to sharpen up and be more sensitive and planned”, said Deepika Singh, Director, Communications, Gionee India.

“Marketers and brands need to factor for experiments in the digital marketing world much like what they do for test-marketing of their products in the physical world. The need to allocate their marketing budgets in a mix of mature digital platforms like search and maturing digital marketing platforms like non-search, video and keep revisiting this mix continuously as they get more mature,” commented  Swaminathan.

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