Was Safety Ever Really an Option?

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Fresh Tragedy

“Adpocalypse” obviously doesn’t sum up the complicated problem facing YouTube these days. It plays well for brand-centric articles (guilty), but to the wide audience of curious marketers, one would think bland solutions like algorithm updates only get so many strikes. Yet YouTube and marketers seem to have developed a benign standoff: YouTube apologizes and gesticulates about improvements, and brands halt their spending long enough to appease the internet mobs before returning to reaping the rewards of YouTube ads.

Can this cycle go on indefinitely?

That’s the bet YouTube seems to have made, and so far it’s paying off for them. The mass brand abdication of early 2017 didn’t even last out the year before the settled dust saw the return of many companies to YouTube’s lucrative video ad options. In fact, May 2017 saw a 50% increase in the use of YouTube by Google Preferred customers. So the return of the same old problems in the last months has been an unexpected (but not surprising) development.

Ads for notable brands such as Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Nordstrom, and even the U.S. Department of Transportation found their way to front of several controversial videos, ranging in severity from right-wing vlogging to pro-North Korean propaganda and pedophilia advocacy. The song and dance of the previous year has already begun to repeat itself as brands (such as Under Armor and Nissan) report pausing their YouTube ad spend. The key word here being “pausing;” the ads may have stopped rolling for now, but they can (and likely will) start again at a moment’s notice. Telecom colossus Cisco, initially resolute against YouTube’s obfuscation, is now shadowed by their own noncommittal, made more notable by the strong statement they issued via their blog on May 9th. Cisco denounced YouTube’s repeated failures and vowed not to spend with them until the ad placement problem had been solved. Within hours, however, the blog had been updated, this time making no mention of any specific platform while still advocating for higher standards of content. If a company as large and capable as Cisco ultimately can never say “never” to YouTube’s host of offerings, can anyone? Or do they even need to?

You Can't Argue with Results

Brand safety vexes all marketers, especially in the post-viral age. Being cutting edge always had merit, but now a savvy brand with a fresh widget can find itself trending, an advantage without price, even in the advent of the now more common ‘negative-virality.’ But, “no risk, no reward,” as the old adage goes.

Reward abounds with YouTube ads. But perhaps equally important, they’re reliable. It comes down to YouTube’s reach. Nothing compares to that 1.3 billion user base or, as YouTube will happily tell you, the lock they have on the youth market. If all that wasn’t enough, YouTube is very affordable at $0.10 to $0.30 per impression.

The risky aspects, brought alongside the seemingly golden goose of digital ads, have clarified over the last few years. We now know that promises of control were false. Yet even as brands stand on sanctimony after watchdogs like CNN break stories on unfortunate ad placement, courses are not diverted. “Safety” may be a buzzing word right now, especially around video ads, but not enough to slow investment. Additionally, though these sentiments are subject to change on a tragedy-by-tragedy basis, only 16% of brands actually rate safety as a major concern, according to a Digiday survey. Still, that hasn’t stopped agencies (the real losers in all this) from making flailing attempts to create some control

Heart of the Beast

Control isn’t an option. In our 2018 Video Marketing Guide we asserted that YouTube is no longer the wild west, and we maintain that still. Not included in that statement is a major caveat: the internet as a whole isn’t safe. One of the illusions of digital marketing, an infection instrumental in the Pivot to Video, was the promise of control. Targeted audiences, computerized CPMs, and ROI that fit perfectly into an Excel spreadsheet. All of that worked, and yet the beast that is ‘online’ still got away from us, burning video buyers, publishers, and advertisers alike. People, of all kinds and cultures, form the foundation of the web, controlling the content and the consumption in an exceptionally violent capitalist tailspin, never airborne for long and never truly crashing for good. No CMO or Google executive can leash it. Being leashed isn’t a part of the nature of the internet, any more than humanity’s artistic expression or drive for information.

The solution to creating safety for brands is singular: curate controllable zones. YouTube’s most tangible solutions to their ad woes is reverting back to a conventional television ad model, with a mix of pre-approved and company produced content.That’s fine and that works, but the real potential to influence exists outside those boundaries, simply because that’s where cultural leaders are, experimenting and building followings. If your brand is a safety-type brand, like Meredith, buying ads with YouTube partners is definitely the right move. But if you want to ride cultural waves and synonymize your brand as a thought leader, you need to take the risk, brush aside the watchdogs, and invest where it counts, without fear.

But it won’t. Be. Safe.

Hunter Smith