Introducing a seminar at Advertising Week Europe entitled “If advertising is funding terror, what should we do differently?”, Hamish Nicklin, chief revenue officer for Guardian News & Media, acknowledged the difficulty of his position. This is both an appropriate time to discuss advertising’s role in addressing terrorism and not. As people lose their lives around us, discussing the world of advertising can evidently seem frivolous, insensitive, inappropriate. However, the panel also follows the fallout from revelations by The Times that programmatic advertising, in this case via Google and YouTube, has led to brands such as Mercedes-Benz unwittingly opening up revenue streams for extremists by advertising next to their content.
As several brands, including The Guardian, withdraw online advertising from Google and YouTube, whether it is pennies or pounds, it is important to ask the question: what can the advertising industry do to avoid marketing budgets ending up in the pockets of white supremacists or religious extremists?
For Anthony Katsur, president of ad technology developer Sonobi, the first steps towards a more transparent advertising ecosystem must involve spreading awareness of the underlying problems that have made this situation possible, and acknowledging that we have the power to control them. Referencing the heady potential of human technology, he drew an apt analogy: if your self-driving car is about to crash, you are going to grab the wheel. He said: “What’s happened in digital is that a lot of us have turned ourselves over to the machine overlords, and that is ad technology both on the buy and the sell side. The key point here is that people cannot fall asleep at the switch. Technology is a tool… People use tools, people govern tools.”
The answer then, he said, lies in greater agency on behalf of the industry and a more significant assumption of responsibility from within.
For Laura Jordan-Bambach, creative partner at creative agency Mr President, this means moving away from the “cheaper, faster, more,” mentality currently driving online ad spending. If we keep on “measuring insane thing like attention, like eyeballs and what have you,” she said, “the result is always going to be the same”.
But is there a need for more stringent regulation? A government-backed regulatory body resembling those for TV, radio and print media? Or is self-regulation a more effective strategy? For Chris Clarke, chief creative officer at marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi, the answer is a bit of both.
He said: “It’s not good enough for Google and Facebook to say ‘We’re separate from all of this, we’re neutral,’ that’s simply not good enough, and it’s not good enough of us as an industry to accept it.
“It’s nobody’s individual fault, but that doesn’t mean you have to step back and let chaos reign…. I think it’s extremely important now that we do start to get some kind of coordinated – probably internationally coordinated – regulation behind some of this stuff, because the kids can’t sort it out for themselves.”
This last point was not agreed, though, by Mark Finney, director of media & advertising at the UK ad industry trade body, ISBA. He argued the answer can only come from within the industry. One of the reasons for this, he suggested, is tied up in the industry’s inability to accurately assess the scale and the nature of the problem, due to vested interests both from those in favour of maintaining the status quo, and those promoting their own “bits of kit”, designed to improve the situation.
However, he said: “I have great faith that we can sort it out, and I think the thing that will sort it out isn’t government but it’s advertising dollars, advertising pounds in this case, which will make the difference. It’s about not using those suppliers that are not properly accredited.”
The hope is, then, as these issues move into the mainstream debate, and more widespread consensus for change is achieved, action will be taken from both within the advertising industry and without to take control of the digital free-for-all.
As Clarke said: “None of this has existed for longer than ten years. We’re not talking about the laws of physics here. These are not immutable, unchangeable things. If we don’t like the way the world is going at the moment as a result of technology, we can change it. Very, very quickly.”