With a coterie of fellow journalists, I spent last Monday in a basement enjoying breakfast with Google’s European chief, Matthew Brittin.
Despite the platter of croissants, he opted for a grilling.
Not unlike digital advertising generally, Ad Week Europe was dominated by Google, and the biblical exodus of advertisers in reaction to revelations that ads were appearing alongside, and inadvertently funding, some real nasties.
The minutes of that meeting were widely publicised. “We’re sorry” was qualified by the fact it was “only a handful of impressions” and only “pennies not pounds” had lined the pockets of rape apologists, anti-semites, terrorists, and hate preachers, to name but a few.
But it was the “comprehensive review” that broke the camel’s back. Reviews are the tool of intransigent politicians who want someone to shut up, or something to shift the blame onto. Although, in Google’s case, to an extent, I say rightly so. Despite the finger-pointing, this isn’t entirely its fault.
Poor old Google has taken all the flak for the various deplorables who post on YouTube, while UK advertisers bray like a Colosseum crowd, thirsty for brand-safe blood. “It was all Google’s fault, honest guv’nor.”
A butterfly flaps its wings in London, and alakazam, half the world has pulled its ads.
But the exodus is totally unjustified; a moral panic to shift the blame, to allay responsibility. There are myriad tools on YouTube and from third parties to ensure ads appear next to brand safe content: whitelists, blacklists, blocking, monitoring, and manual vetting, to name a handful. Many advertisers just haven’t been using them.
Google can of course do more. It already provides brand safe content on Preferred, its premium service – there’s no reason it can’t roll it out further. It’s also working towards intergrating third-party verification on its platforms, which is healthy.
But advertisers have been caught out, their heads buried in the sand, chasing cheap impressions for wider margins. The more diligent will tell you that for free.
There is only one available outcome if advertisers can’t accept some of the blame. When new technology arrives, a free-for-all follows, someone gets hurt, and regulation follows.
The advertising industry is a bastion of self-regulation, and if it wants to continue, perhaps attacking the platform that has most contributed to liberalising the market isn’t wise.
It’s cutting off their nose to spite their face. If no balance of responsibility can be found, it follows that the government will intervene, and the industry won’t be able to keep marking its own homework.
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.