Toward a More Responsible Future for Advertising

The world’s most important players in advertising have peered into the future – and decided to change what they see there.

February 6, 2020

The world’s most important players in advertising have peered into the future – and decided to change what they see there.

A handy trick for thinking about the future is to revisit the past and contemplate what it has to tell us about today. When it comes to the future of advertising – the focus of this month’s edition of Signal 360 – a visit to the optimistic years of the first Internet boom is in order.

In late August of 1998, near the peak of the dot com goldrush, Proctor & Gamble hosted a landmark conference of more than 400 leaders in the then-nascent online advertising industry. Four years after the first banner ad debuted, The Future of Advertising Stakeholder Summit – or FAST – convened in the company’s Cincinnati headquarters. Described by the Wall St. Journal as a gathering of leaders hoping “to reverse what many see as the failure of Internet advertising to date,” the summit took on measurement, ad models, consumer acceptance and online media buying.

The next year, Ad Age lauded P&G for its leadership, naming the company the “Interactive Marketer of the Year.” In its coverage, the publication noted that the FAST Summit was a “seminal event that propelled the Internet advertising industry forward.”

And the industry certainly took off: In 1998, total advertising expenditures on the Internet measured just over a billion dollars, less than 1.5% of total U.S. spend. Twenty years later, that number has mushroomed to nearly $130 billion – more than 50% of all media spend, eclipsing both print and television spend combined.

But Internet advertising’s meteoric rise has brought with it a host of problems new and old. Consumers found banner ads annoying at best, creepy and intrusive at worst. The rise of ad networks and powerful new platforms such as search and social media led to increasing fraud and persistent concerns about data use. And the ungoverned nature of those platforms led to a surge in extremist, hateful content – content with which advertisers unwittingly found themselves associated. By early 2017, the problem erupted into public view via a gut-punching London Times investigation. Its headline: “Big brands fund terror through online adverts.”

The Times investigation led nearly all brands into a difficult and contentious set of conversations with leading platforms. Along the way, many brands pulled their advertising entirely from one platform or another, pending resolution of brand safety concerns. In response, Facebook, Google, and others have struggled to govern their unruly creations. When clips of the now infamous Christchurch tragedy spread across several online outlets and social networks – with advertising attached – it became abundantly clear that the industry’s approach to date was simply not good enough.

Working with a coalition of key players in the industry, P&G has once again taken the lead to protect the future of advertising. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, a potent group of marketers and technology companies announced an initiative to bring safety to the fore again, and to create a sustainable, responsible online ecosystem where all stakeholders can prosper.The Global Alliance for Responsible Media, or GARM, is comprised of more than 60 brands, ad agencies, associations, and platforms. Representing nearly $100 billion in annual ad spend, GARM is led by the World Federation of Advertisers and supported by the Association of National Advertisers, Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as major advertisers including P&G, Adidas, Bayer, and HP.

GARM’s call to action is comprehensive and clarion. Its nine-point charter calls for shared language and standards, accessible controls for monetization, and measurement of progress. “GARM is a first-of-its-kind industry-wide, but advertiser-centric community,” the charter reads. “We are committed to removing economic incentive and reducing operational loopholes that are exploited by bad actors.”

The charter represents a sweeping declaration of new rights and responsibilities for both advertisers and their ecosystem partners. In short, the GARM initiative represents a rebalancing of power in the online advertising world. Major marketers are stepping up and demanding a better environment from the online ecosystem their considerable budgets have funded since those heady days of the dot com boom.

“It’s time to create a responsible media supply chain that is built for the year 2030,” said P&G’s Marc Pritchard (read his full statement here). “One that operates in a way that is safe, efficient, transparent, accountable, and properly moderated for everyone involved, especially for the consumers we serve. With all the great minds in our industry coming together in partnership with GARM, we can and should avoid the pitfalls of the past and chart a course for a responsible future.”

Prior to GARM’s formation, handling brand safety issues required working case by case with individual platforms. Each has different processes, policies, and definitions of brand safe content. Managing brand safety was reactive – a frustrating game of Whack A Mole. GARM’s charter seeks to develop a proactive approach, harmonizing and aligning all parties on a common language and approach. “The endorsement of the World Economic Forum raises the issue from an industry problem to a societal issue,” said Gerry D’Angelo, P&G’s Global Media Director and a board member of the World Federation of Advertisers. “While individual platforms and brands were doing good work on brand safety, we have to come together to effect real change.”

Over the course of the next year, GARM will bend to a significant work plan, including finding consensus on the definition of harmful content; creating tools that put brands and agencies in control of their media spend so as to avoid harmful content; and establishing independently audited and shared measurement standards around harmful content.

For now, the GARM effort is focused on illegal and destructive content. But once GARM’s work is underway, it’s not a stretch to imagine its work could be applied to other questions informing the future of advertising. Among them: the role of misinformation in our political discourse, the transparency of platform algorithms, or how best to direct media buys towards societal goals such as supporting local journalism. And while the work is just beginning, and likely will take longer than anyone would prefer, the GARM alliance represents a major step forward toward creating a far better future – for advertisers, consumers, and content platforms alike.