Innovator Insights: GumGum CGO Ben Plomion Makes The Case For ‘Brand Suitability’ Over Brand Safety

Marketers are understandably protective of how their brand’s image and reputation is perceived, which includes where their ads appear, but Ben Plomion, chief growth officer at Santa Monica, Calif.-based GumGum, has noticed a trend amid COVID-19 where the notion of “safety” might be getting misconstrued. 

Marketers are understandably protective of how their brand’s image and reputation is perceived, which includes where their ads appear, but Ben Plomion has noticed a trend amid COVID-19 where the notion of “safety” might be getting misconstrued. 

As the chief growth officer at Santa Monica, Calif.-based GumGum, Plomion is responsible for helping the firm’s customers transcend the limits of behavioral and audience targeting in digital advertising, particularly as the demise of the third-party cookie draws near. 

Instead, GumGum offers contextual intelligence technology that combines natural language processing and computer vision to  analyze the content of a page ensuring ads are placed in brand safe and suitable environments, all while not using an ounce of personal data.  

The increasingly complex regulatory landscape has already provided a good use case for contextual intelligence, but according to Plomion, the pandemic has offered another. 

“In the early days of March 2020, we saw an enormous rise in digital content and streaming and activity with publishers, but we also noticed that brands became very worried about certain types of content,” Plomion told Brand Innovators.

Beyond not wanting to be positioned against news about the rapidly-spreading Coronavirus, for instance, brands were also cautious about having their ads run with stories about social unrest, Plomion added. 

The Contextual Vs. Behavioral Difference, Explained

For years advertisers have relied on keyword blocking techniques to ensure ads don't appear next to unsavory content. However, this binary approach causes advertisers to miss ideal opportunities because the technology can't understand the context in which that word is being used. For instance, the word "mask" could be associated with negative COVID content but it could also be used in an article about people donating masks to help healthcare workers or an article about the top beauty face masks. 

“The content that gets classified as ‘unsafe’ needs to be reframed in a new lens,” he said. “To be clear, we realized as we used our technology to scan for COVID-19 content, the majority of the content was perfectly safe.”

In place of brand safety — which he called an out-of-date concept — Plomion said marketers should start thinking about how technology can help them ensure an ad environment aligns with their “brand suitability” instead. 

Beyond The Confines Of Keywords

Plomion admits advocating for brand suitability is quite an evolution from other roles in his career, such as a four-year stint at Chango (which was acquired by Rubicon Project) — where marketing behavioral target was his primary focus. 

“The challenge in educating the market about contextual intelligence is that the targeting 1.0 technologies have been around for a long time. But limiting yourself to keyword detection is short-sighted,” he said. “You need to develop a comprehensive understanding of a page.”

Depending on the layout of a page, for example, a publisher’s content would be rendered not only in text but images and even video. Without the ability to look at an ad environment holistically, there’s a danger that marketers don’t realize a publisher could be a good fit from a brand suitability perspective. 

“If your approach is too brand-safe, you wind up putting all your eggs in the same basket,” he explained. “You might not be able to achieve the reach that’s possible on a long-tail website or a news web site.”

The downside is similar if marketers are too loose with brand safety and allow their creative to run everywhere, Plomion added. “You wind up not getting noticed, and it might not have anything to do with your advertising,” he said.

Keeping Pace With Consumer Expectations

Companies have already invested in a number of resources to ensure brand safety and have even appointed chief brand officers in some cases. Plomion believes brand suitability is a better way to make use of those people and tools. Even as the world recovers from the pandemic, many consumer experiences will likely continue to move into digital channels, and regulation isn’t going away. 

“I think consumers get it now. They know they’re being tracked, and they’re sick and tired of having their data being collected and handled by firms to advance an advertising cause,” he said. “There are still instances where behavioral and contextual targeting will have to work together, but if we can get the industry to start thinking in terms of brand suitability, we’ll see more companies meet their advertising objectives without consumers seeing what they do as a creepy marketing tactic.”

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