Publishers and agencies in Asia tackle brand safety amidst COVID-19

The spread of COVID-19 has been growing without any signs of slowing down. A total of 13,903 new confirmed cases were reported globally, bringing the number to 167,511. To date, Singapore has 243 confirmed cases while Malaysia and Indonesia have 553 and 117 cases respectively. While industries including tourism, aviation and retail are struggling to stay afloat, the virus outbreak also brings to light the question of brand safety during a crisis.

In Asia Pacific, there was a 10 times increase in "coronavirus" blocking during the first two months of 2020, according to Laura Quigley, MD, Southeast Asia at Integral Ad Science (IAS). In February, "coronavirus" became the top most blocked keyword in the region and had four times higher blocked impressions than the blocked keywords such as "killed" or "death". According to Quigley, those two keywords usually find the top spots in Asia Pacific. This trend is set to continue in March, and the numbers are slated to take over the February blocking volumes. Since the renaming of the virus to "COVID-19", the blocking on words "COVID" and "COVID-19" is on the rise in Asia Pacific.

Meanwhile, the blocklists keep growing based on reactions to breaking or controversial news, Quigley added. Besides "coronavirus" and "COVID-19", there is also blocking of other words such as "quarantine", "Vaccine", "symptoms", "pandemic", "flu" and "virus".

Despite these keywords being blocked, over time we have seen numerous instances where despite the right blacklisting of words, some digital ads can fall through the cracks and end up being misplaced. Noting this, publishers in Southeast Asia are certainly not taking a back seat when it comes to ensuring brand safety for their clients. Ignatius Low, CCO, media solutions division at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) told Marketing in a statement that the company has a rigorous process, adopting industry tools and working directly with advertisers to define their brand safety preferences, particularly for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals. This is an exception for open marketplace, where brand safety is managed outside of SPH by demand-side platforms and agreed with advertisers or agencies, and where SPH has no direct control, Low explained.

"In all programmatic guaranteed deals with SPH, it will include granular, custom controls to scrutinise direct programmatic placements without compromising scale in order to achieve protection. Sensitive keywords related to COVID-19 are excluded in the process," he added. Low also explained that in all direct bookings including programmatic guaranteed deals, SPH works on the basis of offering transparency and a secure method that ensures brand safety without diminishing ad quality. Aside from the virus outbreak, Low said SPH is constantly fine-tuning internal processes, working with industry software and following industry best practices such as IAB Tech Lab's ads.txt and header bidding. It is also working with clients directly on protecting their interests.

Corroborating Quigley's statistics, Low said that across most sectors, advertisers have taken a precautionary approach and requested for omission from the current sensitive content environment. Some sectors have also requested to temporarily pause their campaign while observing the situation.

"For advertisers that continued with their campaigns, SPH ensures that when it comes to programmatic guaranteed deals, proactive brand safety is applied surrounding COVID-19 unless stated otherwise," he said. Low added:

For online marketplace, it is observed that some sectors such as government, healthcare and FMCG, continue to place timely ads and reminders to associate with articles around COVID-19.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, Star Media Group's group CEO Andreas Vogiatzakis said to date, none of its clients have asked for ads to not appear next to COVID-19 news. That said, it is working very closely with traders to ensure targeting is in line with their planned objectives. He added:

At the same time, we encourage traders to stick to one to two platforms to manage performance of the buys. 

Vogiatzakis explained that brand safety is interpreted differently by each client as they come from different market sectors. "COVID-19 is essentially breaking news and garners plenty of eyeballs as consumers read news that is important to them," he said. For brands that do not wish to be associated with the pandemic, Vogiatzakis said an exclusion can be applied to their campaigns to ensure their ads do not run when these news articles appear.

Similarly, South China Morning Post's clients have also not specifically asked to avoid articles around COVID-19 but it has had an interest from multiple brands that would like to positively target this content, Ian Hocking, SCMP's VP, digital told Marketing. This is especially since COVID-19 content is highly engaging and important to readers.

"We believe that most COVID-19 articles are brand safe and we have both manual and automated processes to ensure that any exceptions are identified and clients are safeguarded. But we believe that these days it is more about brand suitability – the concept that some content may not be suitable for some brands," Hocking explained. He added that the company is working on tools that help advertisers find content that has great context that delivers good engagement. SCMP also proactively blocks articles that may be too sensitive for advertising, before layering on brand safety tools to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.

Also weighing in on the issue was Mediacorp's spokesperson, who said: "Our properties are a preferred choice for our audiences and advertisers. In this, we constantly engage our clients to fulfil their needs, and deploy leading contextual targeting and brand safety tools to safeguard our clients’ ads."

Other opportunities for brands

Brands in categories including tourism, retail, hospitality, events and entertainment might have paused activity or pulled back on media investment. However, other categories such as personal hygiene products, packaged food, healthcare, eCommerce and remote working software are all benefiting from huge spikes in demand, Lani Jamieson, head of Cadreon Singapore and Malaysia said. According to her, media consumption and shopping behaviour has also changed to adapt to market circumstances, with increases in delivery services and in-home entertainment.

"This presents an opportunity for brands to further invest and develop strategies for eCommerce, OTT and mobile," she said. Like the publishers, Cadreon has also been "incredibly proactive" working with clients directly to ensure its multi-tiered approach to brand safety captures the continuously evolving COVID-19 situation. "We implemented a number of new measures over the past six to seven weeks and have been monitoring closely ever since," Jamieson said.

Similarly, DWA's head of biddable media, Pablo Alvarez, said that some of its clients in the B2B space offer products that can help businesses work remotely or be more efficient in these situations. Shortly after the COVID-19 breakout, Cisco, for example, shifted its focus towards its webex programme to maximise visibility for their video conferencing solutions. 

"From a DWA perspective, we have not seen the COVID-19 situation negatively impacting programmatic media plans and budgets for our clients. We have also not seen significant decreases in CPM rates worth mentioning," he said. Nonetheless, DWA's clients have also specifically asked to stay away from advertising adjacent to news coverage concerning "coronavirus" or "COVID-19".

On the other hand, Tom Simpson, VP, brand and exchange, Asia Pacific at AdColony said it has seen a 5% to 10% reduction in CPM across Asia Pacific, but the number differs across markets due to the priorities of each country. For example, Indonesia's CPMs are up due to Ramadan being around the corner, making it a peak period for brands to increase their advertising efforts. While Indonesia’s CPMs are at a high, Simpson said there is a drop in Singapore, Malaysia and North Asia, where China is the most impacted market.

"These results probably represent some of the heat coming out of advertising in general in response to the crisis, as Facebook and other platforms record similar observations. Everything has to do with supply and demand, so this is exactly what we’d expect to see with demand falling during this period," he added.

Simpson has also witnessed an increase in ad spend from eCommerce, entertainment and gaming clients, as they target consumers who are spending more time at home. There are also huge speaks in time spent on mobile gaming. Similarly, Simpson said Spotify and other streaming entertainment platforms are all seeing increases in consumer downloads and usage.

Be mindful of long-time horizons

Although it is important for marketers to monitor shifts in media consumption and be mindful of the opportunities that may follow, Brian Wieser, global president, business intelligence at GroupM said in a blog post that just because aggregated shifts are likely to occur, it does not mean that individual marketers should necessarily alter their media strategies.

"Marketers need to be mindful of long-time horizons during crises and make decisions on this basis. We emphasise that marketers should continually assess the relevance of a given medium for a given marketing strategy and creative message," he said.

While it is difficult to anticipate how much a recession may impact advertising spend in the near-term, Wieser said "it is highly likely" that the impact will be negative, with growth in some countries softening, others going flat and others declining. "While it is far too early to anticipate outcomes with any precision, the implied double-digit declines in ad spending within China for the first quarter could play out elsewhere, with reduced declines in subsequent quarters and an eventual reversion back to growth as we have seen following other recessions," he explained.

That said, marketers who are able to avoid making cuts will generally fare better given what will likely be relatively favourable pricing and reduced competition for consumer attention, he said. Wieser added:

Longer-term brand-building will benefit from a sustained media presence, albeit with appropriately modified messaging.

According to Weiser, ad spending might fall, but it also may shift. Given the absence of near-term sales to be realised, advertiser willingness to spend may fall despite higher audience levels for some media. However, if the volume of available budgets for spending on advertising weakens in any given country, Wieser explained that it is difficult to anticipate which specific media will be most impacted."Traditional TV could fare relatively better because of the likely improvements in audience levels, while outdoor advertising may be worse off with lower levels of foot traffic in many places. At the same time,we emphasise that spending on paid media will not necessarily correlate with spending by marketers on services, such as those provided by agencies," he said.Why marketers should advertise against COVID-19 stories

IAS might have reported an increase in brands blocking "coronavirus" or "COVID-19" keywords, but DoubleVerify's COO Matt McLaughlin said the coronavirus challenge is a unique news incident and will not simply go away. It will continue to be a key focus for trusted news publishers, which keep the public informed with reliable, accurate information. 

"In the fake news era, trusted news publishers are critical sources for information. This is especially the case in a crisis, where disinformation is often more likely to be shared than a genuine news article," McLaughlin said. 

Support of trusted news at the time of a global health pandemic is something we want all brands to strongly consider. 

DoubleVerify has recommended that its consumers follow strategies such as content classification, keyword blocklists, and exception lists. Brands should consider exempting trusted news publishers from its "natural disaster" content classification category, as well as coronavirus-related keyword blocklists.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin said brands should "strongly consider" adding trusted news site homepages and section pages, such as national or health, to their DoubleVerify page exception lists. He explained that page exception lists allow a brand's ads to run irrespective of the brand suitability settings applied to the rest of their media plan. 
 
This is especially useful for programmatic buys and on high-volume entry pages where the consumer associates the brand with the news publication more than the dynamic and aggregated context of the content on the page, he added. "In general, we encourage all brands to advertise across trusted news sites as broadly as possible, unless there is a direct connection between a news incident and their brand," McLaughlin said.Agreeing with McLaughlin is AdColony's Simpson who said:

When times are good, you should advertise. But when times are bad, you should advertise more.

While consumers are concerned about COVID-19, Simpson explained that they are also pragmatic and hungry for information. As such, brands need to be authentic and in times like these, avoiding COVID-19 is not a great position. "Educate, empathise and engage with consumers. Brands may find they can help consumers and society get through this together," he added.

One industry player has already taken a step in this direction to show support for credible content concerning COVID-19. YouTube recently backtracked on its initial ban of monetising content related to the virus outbreak. The coronavirus outbreak had fallen under the monetisation ban concerning "sensitive events", and YouTube's guidelines cited that a sensitive event is usually "an unforeseen event in which there has been a loss of life".While the coronavirus situation is considered a sensitive event, YouTube's sensitive events policy was designed to apply to short-term events of significant magnitude, such as a natural disaster.