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First it was Marc Pritchard from Procter & Gamble, and more recently Unilever’s Keith Weed – calling out the failings of the adtech industry. From brands pulling away from YouTube amidst radicalism and fake news scandals to the spurious collection of data on children despite online regulations – this new era of technology needs new ethics. And the industry as a whole needs to share the responsibility, according to a panel discussion -- ‘Does Adtech have a heart?’-- hosted by The Drum in association with Iotec on Feb 16.

Does the industry, therefore, need a standard code of ethics across adtech vendors in order to force transparency? Paul Wright, chief executive at Iotec, unveiled a study that said 89% of the people surveyed would like a standard metric. The research by the media buying platform surveyed 250 marketers. It also found that 56% of marketers believe their current tech provider is honest and transparent, while 81% are prepared to switch to a more ethical and honest advertising supplier.

Ian Armstrong, global head of advertising at Jaguar LandRover said: “You have to have some mark of regulation of trust or something to convince people otherwise they will advocate completely and then the investment will begin to dissipate or spread or not build the brands we are trying to build and that’s not good for anybody. I mean if you put 100 people into a room and 89 said we should have one then sure as shit we should have one.”

The problem with global standards

It however begs the question whether a standard global standard is even possible. Phil Smith, president of ISBA, explained that people of course expect all advertising to be monitored. However, imposing a minimum standard might not be simple because of the vast differences between so-called traditional and digital media. “There’s also a big complication that many of the companies we are operating with are global and are looking for the position of global standards, which I think it is the right way to go. You have to recognise the local differences though.” Smith explained.

“Having said that we are seeing some of the major players begin to open themselves up to independent inspection, albeit by commercial third parties and that’s going to have to be part of the stepping stone journey that we go on.

“I think when you look at what they are doing to try and impose minimum standards on things like viewability you realise that we are still very much at the foothills of a very long route march to get to a place where advertisers can buy advertising which gets experience from consumers as its designed to be experiences and welcomed by consumers.

“I think part of the issue in the market at the moment is people are punting out any kind of advertising stimulus they want to people saying yeah I’ll sell it to you and there is no feedback coming back from the market that says consumers don’t like that.”

Brand safety: Is enough being done?

Smith however agrees that there is huge shift in consumers perception when it comes to brand safety. “When the issues around brand safety moved from extremist content to child abuse, the emotional reaction was much stronger,” he added.

Meanwhile, most of the panel also agreed that Google and Facebook have – in some respects – also bowed to brand demands by introducing more stringent third-party verification systems and investing in both human and AI moderation.

Cadi Jones, the commercial innovation director for Clear Channel Outdoor’s international division however disagreed vehemently. “Media owners, across the board, with the exception of Google and Facebook have always been held to a much higher standard for a much longer time. There isn’t a media owner in this room who won’t have been running brand content without accepting third party verification tracking and full transparency. They’ve had to if they want revenue. Yet advertisers have given some media owners a free pass to get away with whatever they like, and it takes something like child abuse to put it on their radar.”

Google was the focus of a series of damning investigations by The Times on how advertisers have funded everything from extremist content to child abuse videos on YouTube. 

Pete Markey, marketing director at TSB confirmed that as a brand the high street bank has decided not to advertise on YouTube and that it won't until he is convinced by Google.

Educating marketers before consumers

Is adtech therefore an advertising problem? It is an advertising problem in the sense that advertising funds much of adtech, according to Smith. Wright added that there is of course a growing awareness of data and privacy issues in the general public but with marketers like Weed and Pritchard wading into this conversation, it is no longer just about appropriate context for advertising but it is about inspiring action from the industry that now needs to take the responsibility to become more trustworthy and become more ethical when it comes to delivering the “right experience for the consumers.”

Armstrong noted that it is not just the public that are wary of adtech and how it works. He added: “Half the people in marketing organisations don’t know the full value chain and the intricacies of all the different component parts and the ecosystem that plays a part in pulling it together.”

“The system is kind of complicated and if we can’t understand it then we can’t expect anyone else who is not in our world to understand it?”

Championing the work ISBA are doing to educate the industry, Markey, said: “I think we as marketers needs to educate ourselves better so that when we’re talking to media owners and media agencies we can have a more educated conversation and be more demanding. Let’s be clear about what we want measured, how we want measured, what quality we want, not just I want ABC adults in Wolverhampton and off you go.”

Taking a stand

At the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting in California, Unliever’s marketing chief, Keith Weed, shocked the industry when he said the brand would only work with companies “committed to creating a better digital infrastructure” and would sever ties with any platform it deemed “unethical”.

Markey applauded Weed’s remarks saying that “(the comments) have been helpful in educating boards and exec teams” which has led to conversations on TSB’s stance of the issue. He went on to add: “Where Keith’s speech is helpful is that it’s a financial threat. But it’s also about reputational threats. We’ve seen the damage the front-page reports on YouTube has done. That hurt them commercially. But it shouldn’t take the extremes to do it.

“But if there is momentum there that can’t go away; it has to continue.”

Jones noted that ‘this momentum’ followed when the “two strongest calls” were made by the two FMCH giants – a category, she said, “is particularly under threat.” She asked: “It’s interesting they are turning to their advertising and how they structure that as key to their solution. Are other vertical categories under enough threat to take action?”

The panel reflected that a change is coming to adtech and that 2018 is the year when digital supply chain will be overhauled. Whether the industry’s efforts will be enough in order to rebalance the whole ecosystem is far from clear, but the panel was unanimous that the debate around ethical adtech is nowhere near a resolution.

Iotec has released the ‘Ethical Adtech Manifesto’, which recommends brands to continuously audit their suppliers to meet high standards of ethics and have a clear idea of what data is collected, stored and used. It lays out the three core areas that need addressing in the industry, with the aim of driving the industry toward taking action. These are: transparency and fair trading, efficiency and effectiveness, and brand protection, security and privacy.