When people think of digital advertising, a lot can come to mind, but something almost everyone would say is that “performance” is the bottom line. However, those of us in the industry know there is so much more to digital media buying and analytics today, and brand safety is one of the many ongoing obstacles we face.

At Zion & Zion, we take brand safety very seriously. Brand safety in digital marketing can be defined as “the strategy put into place to help ensure that online advertisements or associations do not appear on or in websites, videos, or articles that may conflict with the brand’s image, mission, or goals.” Some of our clients are especially sensitive to certain content online and require further evaluation of paid media dollars running next to content that would be very harmful to their brand. As a media agency, we work hard to ensure that our ads are seen by a human, in the assigned demographic and in a safe and suitable environment.

Brand safety considerations can be grouped into three main categories:

  1. Financial Risk (viewability, fraud, etc.),
  2. Reputational Risk (content environment, user experience, etc.) and
  3. Legal Risk (consumer privacy, anti-piracy, etc.).

In this article, I will briefly touch on the importance of brand safety from the viewpoint of paid digital media specifically.

Brand Safety Today

As we continue to grow as an industry, looking toward more of an audience targeted strategy, we further run into the issues that stem from following users across the web. This IAB insider article helps touch on why this issue is a bigger than ever. In essence, we’re in a period of time when marketers operate on a ‘consumer-focused’ media buying approach at the same time that consumers are becoming more and more aware of their personal privacy vulnerabilities online. These issues are magnified because so much digital media is bought programmatically because of its detailed targeting capabilities and efficient cost.

An example of how this can be troublesome is a media campaign targeting Men 18-25 as a primary audience through programmatic media buying. While ads that appear to these users align with the demographic target, these users are also highly likely to visit websites and content that a brand and advertiser may not view as consistent with their brand reputation (potentially a political extremist site, sexually-explicit, etc.). What was once a problem discussed solely within the advertising industry has now become national front-page news, resulting in many people asking: how are these ads showing up in inappropriate placements? The big issue for a brand’s ad appearing next to unsavory content can have a huge impact on the reputational risk of that advertiser.

In addition to the risks involved of ads appearing next to questionable or unsafe content, there is another big concern for digital marketers – viewability and fraud. This can be paying for a large amount of impressions that appear ‘under the fold’ or in placements on site that a user is unlikely to see. The average 69.2% of viewability for display ads has improved since 2018, as advertisers continue to try and monitor the mix of media placements in addition to paying attention to the impressions served. While viewability is not a goal of most media campaigns, it is an important metric to monitor and determine if the rise or fall in this metric has an influence on the overall performance digital advertising.

Additionally, bot traffic is a huge concern in today’s digital environment. Both wasted impressions as well as the concern of inaccurate counts of site visits and conversion actions lead to financial risk for brands and advertisers. Most of us have seen a CAPTCHA or ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart’, as a technique to distinguish between humans and computers. This is used in effort to combat bot traffic from completing an action on a user’s website and more. These are just a few examples of brand safety financial risks for a digital media campaign.

Fake News: Social Media and Brand Safety

One of our responsibilities as media buyers includes following the changing times of media consumption over the last decade. This includes an increase by most brands in the use of social media platforms for digital advertising. The biggest obstacle with these platforms is that they rely on user-generated content, which can make monitoring for advertisers even harder than traditional website ad placements.

Earlier in 2019, YouTube faced issues with advertisers pulling out of their platform due to child exploitation and content concerns. Responding to media exposure and advertiser pressure, both YouTube and Facebook have improved their internal oversight and advertiser-configurable brand suitability controls. They have employed improved AI, reprogrammed discoverability algorithms, hired armies of human reviewers, launched limited/restricted inventory mode, and more.

In addition to paid ads on social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, influencer advertising is a huge component of user generated content; it’s what we pay them to do! There have been influencers caught in online feuds and inflating their list of followers with fake accounts. While influencer marketing does have occasional run-ins with brand safety hazards, working with influencers gives marketers and brands more control over the placement of their sponsored content. Since brands can vet and hand-select influencers, they can have a good understanding of what content these individuals typically support and content they share.

Whose Job is it Anyways?

Brand Safety in digital marketing needs to be the responsibility of both the client and the agency. While most clients and advertisers would say they focus on media campaigns that fully support both a brand safe environment and performance driven metrics, there is a bit of a scale in terms of how you can have both. When looking to lower costs for media and maximize scale, there may likely be limitations on the type of third-party ad tracking that can be implemented to block unwanted inventory. The flip side of this is when looking to run on very limited inventory or direct media placements, we see a lack of scale, efficiency and in turn – performance. This is one of the many constant battles we as media planner/buyers face with digital media advertising, and despite constant improvements in technology that help to block or monitor our media ads from appearing within an unfavorable environment, there is always another variable out of our control – humans.

In a world where so many of us consume user-generated content and participate in numerous social platforms, it will continue to be a battle for brands as we try to stay where the people are at, but within the confides of what is deemed a ‘safe environment’ for our brand to be. There must be consistent shared communication between the client and their agency to ensure that both parties fully understand and work towards brand safety for all media.

How to Protect Your Brand

How brands and advertisers monitor and block against fraudulent and ‘non-safe’ content is constantly changing. As media evolves, and media buyers continuously adapt to technology, brands will also need to be cognizant of the environment their advertising lives on. Fundamentally, there has been a long-time standard list for advertisers known as the ‘dirty dozen’ content list which is used as a standard blacklist for media buys.

  1. Military Conflict
  2. Obscenity
  3. Illegal Drugs
  4. Adult
  5. Arms
  6. Crime
  7. Death/Injury
  8. Online Piracy
  9. Hate Speech
  10. Terrorism
  11. Spam/Harmful site
  12. Tobacco

In addition to this blacklist, other steps marketers and brands can take include; choosing a reputable programmatic provider, opt for premium inventory, and use of ad servers and use third party monitoring services (DoubleVerify and Moat are some common third-party partners than many implement to help monitor and block online inventory for media buying). This Bannerflow article helps go more in depth on these and other steps to take to help the management of your online media ads.

With evolving technology, the future of brand safety will look to utilize artificial intelligence technology for monitoring of media campaigns. Using A.I. and machine learning, these technology providers are usually able to evaluate the quality of an ad impression in real-time and help their brand clients avoid anything that could be considered inappropriate. Although advancements in A.I. are happening every day, the tools that are available right now are not capable of determining the correct context and meaning of every word that’s uttered online.


Today, digital marketers are met with challenges beyond impressions and conversion rates. While our top priority to is to invest in channels that will deliver the highest returns, we must also go to great lengths to protect the brands we represent from financial, reputational, and sometimes even legal risk. We believe that clients should be fully aware of the strategic and tactical implications of an aggressive, performance-driven approach to brand safety vs. a conservative, low-risk approach. Take the list above, for example. What could be taboo for your brand may be fine for another. A gaming company may have very different contextual tolerances compared to a kid’s app developer. As technology advances in brand safety measurement continue, it is important for advertisers to stay up to date on these capabilities and brands to have a clearly defined outlook on the importance of these risks as it relates to their brand.