Thomson Reuters is the latest company to halt the serving of its ads programmatically, following an investigation by The Times last week which found household-name advertisers to be unwittingly placing ads alongside extremist content.

The investigation uncovered that hundreds of large companies, universities and charities – including Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose and Marie Curie – have been inadvertently funding sites featuring hate, porn and terrorism through automated ad placement.

As reported by The Drum, the media company claimed to be “deeply concerned” about the appearance of its ads on inappropriate websites, which included “Isis-supporting websites and neo-Nazi YouTube channels”, as well as placement by a video created by Nazi faction Combat 18 – all of which amounted to the company freezing its involvement with programmatic yesterday.  

In doing so, Thomson Reuters joins the likes of Halifax, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Dropbox, who among many of the implicated brands, have removed their ads from automated servers. Jaguar Land Rover, meanwhile, chose to pull all digital advertising in the UK in the aftermath of the report, while Mercedez Benz requested its agencies review their safe media lists. 

A blow for programmatic

If only slated as temporary for now, these opt-outs are a blow for the programmatic advertising industry, which despite steady growth over the years, and spend predicted by Zenith to rise 31% next year, has faced an ongoing battle to gain trust among advertisers over concerns for brand safety. 

A survey by PerformanceIN at the end of last year highlighting chief challenges around the automated buying of ads going into 2017 found “ads placed on fake news or unsavoury sites” a concern for 41.4% of respondents, just behind a “lack of transparency”, at 42.1%. 

Meanwhile, The Times’ reveal provides untimely, retrospective support to P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard’s assertion that the digital marketing industry is “murky at best and fraudulent at worst”, throwing another haymaker into the fight as digital marketers are forced into defending their corner. 

“Cause for concern”

Asked about how the industry would respond to the current situation, Greg Endean, commercial director at programmatic company Sociomantic, admitted that the misplacement of content is certainly “cause for concern”, but blamed it on the failings of individual members, rather than an issue of epidemic proportions.  

“Any association of an advertiser with offensive content is an extreme breach of brand safety, and diligent programmatic display partners will have structures set in place,” said Endean. 

“As a technology partner that only buys media programmatically, we are able to have conversations and apply tremendous pressure with ad exchanges and SSPs to ensure that the integrity of the marketplace is also held accountable.”

A few bad apples

This “pressure”, according to Endean, includes deep packet inspection, ad fraud detection technology (a technical infrastructure flagging any form of suspicious user activity), further filters with SSPs, individual domain black lists as well as contractual protection from suppliers.

Despite the measures and fail safes that individual ad servers put in place to ensure brand safety for their clients, however, it may be unlikely that these assurances will permeate the wider ears of advertisers who, with often limited knowledge of the workings of programmatic to begin with, will see these recent headlines as cause to stay away from the ‘entity’ of programmatic as a whole. 

As was witnessed with the rise of ad blocking – while that dialogue was between marketer and consumer – a few bad examples can backtrack the progress of an entire industry and stimulate widespread reevaluation of approaches; it will certainly be interesting to observe the wider dialogue of programmatic’s members over the next few weeks.