The outbreak of news surrounding the term ‘brand safety’ in 2017 has left little room for ignorance on the subject. We started to see the conversation be thoroughly sprinkled across every marketing and advertising website and blog. However, as we often see with big issues increasing in size and magnitude over time, possible long-term solutions are all talked with little data to back them up. And while we know brand safety isn’t a one-click fix, we don’t quite know which solution is preeminent… yet.

The deluge of fake news websites has digital advertisers pushing to ensure their ads only appear in pre-approved places. Whitelists, which are curated lists of brand-acceptable sites, have become a primary brand safety tool for advertisers. While it seems like an effective solution, whitelisting is provisional; it doesn’t address the underlying cause. The root of the problem is how the industry handles fraud, transparency, and the consistency and quality of the media supply. After all, the demand-side platforms (DSPs) serve the content on malicious websites, but the agency’s brand is the one under threat.

Whitelists limit an advertiser’s potential reach, and it’s also costly and time-consuming. They could be missing entire audience segments simply because they’re serving ads on fewer sites. Unless you’ve poured exponential time and energy into including every single website that would be acceptable for your ads to appear on, chances are, you’re working with limited inventory – and that means higher costs. However, when used as a jumping-off point for increased brand safety, it can certainly create a strong foundation on which to build off of in 2018.

While it is a good practice to combine a whitelist + block list approach, some may think that this strategy is the resolution to all of their brand safety-related troubles. However, since the list of distasteful sites is ever-growing, it would be seemingly impossible to stay on top of it. A key strategy with both of these is frequently reviewing and refining the websites where ads are, and are not, being served. This an in-depth look that goes far beyond just making sure that ads are not being shown on fake news sites. For example, a travel agency obviously doesn’t want their ad to appear next to a news article about a plane crash.

The brand safety and whitelist/block list conversation also include protection against ad fraud. Dealing with fraudulent traffic takes a 3-tier preventions system. The first line of defence comes from buy-side partners; they track patterns and monitor activity across IPs, publishers, users, and supply vendors to help detect and prevent fraud, continuously placing all fraudulent traffic sources on a network-wide block list. The second level of prevention is internal, containing two block lists: one that is continuously updated and one based off of historically low viewable sites. The third is at the user level, encouraging clients to upload their own block lists for a more well-rounded approach.

To create a secure ad exchange, it’s pertinent that agencies and brands form close relationships with the advertisers, platforms, and publishers they’re working with. That means not only expecting but demanding transparency from partners. In doing so, each side can guarantee ads are served on safe, brand-acceptable websites. DSPs will have to accommodate this increasing demand to stay competitive if, and when, this becomes an industry-wide practice.

The one caveat: be realistic with demands and goals. The industry isn’t going to change overnight. It’ll take time for each side to agree on practices that are safe and fair. Until then, advertisers have other tools they can employ to protect their brands. Instead of using only a whitelist, use a combination of block lists, keyword analysis, and preferential whitelists that will make sure ads are being shown on the right websites – and perhaps more importantly, not being shown on the wrong ones.

There is still a human element in the programmatic sphere. While automation has made the digital advertising process more efficient, human judgment will always need to be involved.