Unilever's marketing chief Keith Weed has long been vocal about the need for digital platforms to be more accountable around what he dubs the "3Vs": Value, viewability, and verification.
But despite the high-profile disquiet around brand ads appearing next to extremist content on YouTube, Weed says Unilever — which owns brands including Axe, Magnum, and Lipton — won't be joining the growing list of global advertisers saying they are suspending their campaigns from Google's video ad platform.
Speaking to Business Insider and a small group of journalists (a briefing also attended by Google's Europe boss Matt Brittin) ahead of Advertising Week Europe, which took place in London last week, Weed said: "The best way to do negotiations with any supplier is one-on-one and in private, so you won't find us coming out and making public statements."
Weed did reveal that Unilever and Google had "an incredibly difficult conversation" about viewability — the measure of which an ad had the ability to be seen by a human — two years ago, which "did affect then what I was willing to invest in YouTube."
Historically, Unilever also took issue with Google and other platforms like Facebook and Twitter over verification and their willingness to open its platforms up to third-party measurement firms.
A conversation with Google's head of product at its headquarters in Mountain View in 2014 led to Weed coming up with the phrase "marking your own homework" — or "grading your own homework" in the US, he joked. The phrase has since been adopted by a number of prominent figures in the advertising industry — including WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell — when calling for digital platforms to provide greater transparency over their metrics.
Speaking with Business Insider after the briefing, Weed said: "The debate back then was I want to be able to understand what counts as a view and then, within that, what third-party verification was in place for me to be able to say that it's a definite view and that they are not marking their own homework. A view on some platforms not so long ago was just an ad being served. So if you were on a PC and you were looking at the top of the page, an ad was being served at the bottom of the page [where a user may not scroll], you were paying for that. I hasten to add, Unilever wasn't, but I can guarantee a huge amount of people were."
Weed says the current industry-standard for a view — 50% of the pixels of an ad seen for 1 second or more — doesn't go far enough. He says a view should be 100% of the pixels seen. On video, he says half of the ad must have been watched to count as a view — versus the industry-standard of 50% of the pixels for 2 continuous seconds.
"I was saying [back during discussions with Google in 2015] I'm not taking a stance against YouTube or any other platform, I'm taking a stance about what I'm willing to pay for. This is my criteria, if you don't match that criteria, at the end of the day, it's Unilever dollars. If you don't match that criteria, that's fair enough. But our dollars will follow where that criteria exists," Weed said.
Marc Pritchard, the chief marketing officer at consumer goods giant P&G, delivered two landmark speeches earlier this year in which he gave its agencies and suppliers a year's notice to get audited and open themselves up to accredited third-party verification services. Media agency The&Partnership's founder Johnny Hornby said advertisers and agencies should set a "Cannes deadline" — referring to the Cannes Lions advertising industry event that takes place in June — for Google and Facebook to sort out issues such as ad fraud and ad misplacement, or else the industry should cut its spend on those platforms
Weed said the progress digital platforms have made on those types of areas over the past couple of years has been "fantastic," although they are still not where they should be. But he doesn't plan to put an public deadline on his demands, like his biggest competitor has. Instead, Unilever is giving individual companies separate, private deadlines. Industry-wide definitions run the risk of lowering the bar, so that everyone else can step over it, Weed explained.
"What you won't catch me doing as I've seen some people saying: 'The industry must address this by September' or something. These are unrealistic expectations to set out. Does the industry as a whole need to put more pressure on media companies to resolve this quickly? Absolutely. Do I applaud more people getting involved in this conversation and holding the industry to account? Absolutely. The more people that understand and make the right choices the better," Weed said.
While Unilever is working to hold media companies to account for the quality of ad inventory they offer on their platforms, Weed said it's also incumbent on marketers to protect themselves. Unilever uses third-party verification services that check websites before it places ads on them to make sure they will be appearing in safe environments. It's something the company has been doing for years and one of the reasons why he is surprised discussions around brand safety, verification, and ad fraud seem to be flaring up right now.
Weed said: "I reflected recently on why does there seem to be more press about it? Maybe just more people caught on to what was going on and that also includes journalists ... I think this is a little concerning because this is a fast moving world ... and in a fast moving world, I think everyone needs to keep themselves tooled up and sharp with what's going on ... Some of the comments I'm seeing in the press right now, it's easy to blame one person, and they [Google] have the biggest accountability, but we all need to do our homework."
For its part, Unilever puts all its 5,500 marketers — from junior employees to its executive committee — through compulsory digital training modules on subjects such as SEO or big data. If they fail, they must complete the test again.
Weed said: "Marketers need to tool up. I'm a great believer in building capabilities and skills. There isn't a football team that sits around eating crisps and drinking beer all week that then gets up on a Saturday morning gives it their best. No, they train and they coach. I think if you want to be an elite marketer, just like if you want to be an elite footballer, you need to train and coach."
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