Publishers Retreat From the Risks of Google-YouTube Advertising

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The Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. The Guardian is among the organizations that have pulled advertising from Google amid concerns that it is not doing enough to prevent brands from showing up alongside offensive content. CreditJeff Chiu/Associated Press

When The Guardian was made aware this month that some of its advertisements were appearing on YouTube videos from extremists, it quickly pulled its marketing across Google. That move, prompted by reporting in The Times of London, began a broader advertiser exodus that has now extended to the United States, amid concern that the technology giant is not doing enough to prevent brands from showing up next to offensive content.

The issue has been particularly poignant for publishers, who have been adversely affected by the way most online ads work. Automated technology allows companies to advertise on numerous websites in an attempt to cheaply and efficiently reach specific people based on their browsing habits. There was irony in The Guardian’s having to pull the ads, given that attracting more paid subscribers is a way for it to mitigate the fact that many companies do not need to pay to directly advertise on its news site, Hamish Nicklin, the chief revenue officer of Guardian News & Media, said in an interview on Friday.

“We were trying to bridge the gaps in our ad decline, and the decline was caused by YouTube and Google’s dominance in the space — only to have to slow down our potential acquisitions because of the very same tools and products,” Mr. Nicklin said. As of Friday, the publisher had yet to resume marketing with Google, which takes a percentage from the ads placed on YouTube and the over two million sites in its display network, though it was “very likely” to reinstate search ads soon, he said.

Major advertisers including AT&T, Coca-Cola and Walmart yanked marketing dollars from Google last week after reports showed their ads on YouTube videos promoting hate speech, terrorism and racism; some of the videos contained racial slurs in their titles. While Google apologized and outlined steps it would take to guard against those situations, it has also defended itself by pointing to the volume of content it oversees. That has not appeased advertisers, who wonder if they are indirectly supporting hate speech, particularly as social media-savvy watchdogs prove able to turn one inappropriate appearance into viral, brand-damaging moments in and of themselves.

“We needed to react very, very quickly,” Mr. Nicklin said. “We knew the next day that our brand, which is fundamentally important to us, was about to be splashed over the Times front page for all the wrong reasons.”

Ad agencies have seized on this moment to emphasize their value as middlemen between brands and the likes of Google and Facebook, which have become two of the world’s most valuable companies through online ad sales, and to attempt to pressure the internet companies into providing them with more access to closely guarded data and metrics.

For premium publishers such as The Guardian, which, like The New York Times and other news organizations, faces looming job cuts tied to economic pressures, it is a chance to highlight how disconnected online ads have become from the context in which they appear. The ad inventory on The Guardian’s website should be “valued for what it is versus a gallery of ‘Stars That Have Got Fake Teeth,’” Mr. Nicklin said.

“What I’d like to see now is a conversation in the advertising industry, which we’re definitely seeing in the U.K. and have for the last few weeks, around how do we start valuing context and quality, and how do we start factoring that into our decision-making when we start buying media?” he said.

He added, “I certainly don’t think YouTube is the only one here that’s got challenges. I think it’s relevant to every single ad tech company that buys inventory at scale that’s very, very targeted at low costs.”

To be sure, publishers are limited in how much they can extricate themselves from technology companies — even as The Guardian pulled its ads, it still used Google’s AdX ad exchange to select advertisements on its own website. Mr. Nicklin said there was a fine balance between relying on Google as a partner and “using them as an advertising tool in our own right.”

“We’re all reliant on Google in this ecosystem,” he said.