How Group M's new digital sheriff will enforce law and order online

Brand-safety tsar John Montgomery is charged with ensuring that the WPP network's clients aren't among those spending billions on ads never seen by humans. It's quite an undertaking, Shona Ghosh discovers.

How Group M's new digital sheriff will enforce law and order online

John Montgomery, the freshly anointed executive vice-president of brand safety at WPP’s Group M, admits he’s sticking his head above the parapet with his new job.

He is tasked with rolling out strategies to deal with ad fraud, viewability, brand safety and ad-blocking across Group M’s global markets. 

All are becoming expensive problems for media agencies, but ad fraud is the most pressing. Up to £31bn of client money is spent on ads never seen by humans, according to the World Federation of Advertisers. Montgomery can’t solve ad fraud, but claims he can help ensure that Group M clients’ adspend isn’t included in that £31bn figure. 

The network’s clients include Nestlé and Unilever, both of whose senior marketers have been vocal on ad-blocking, fraud and viewability. 

Unilever declined to comment for this article, but chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed last year called for "real action" on ad fraud.

"We have some venerable brands to protect – our portfolio is weighted towards long-standing, valuable brands," Montgomery explains. "As they move from the linear side of media to digital, they’re concerned about the vagaries of brand safety."

He adds that Group M’s clients had "applauded" the network’s decision to make a senior person responsible for brand safety.

Difficult as the job seems, Montgomery is already deeply involved in the space. His achievements in
the US include devising the strategy for the self-regulatory AdChoices program (a WPP agency designed the logo), co-chairing anti-piracy group Trustworthy Accountability Group and helping set viewability standards. And it’s working for Group M clients: figures from Group M and one of its three tech partners, Integral Ad Science, showed the network saved five clients $7.6m last year in the US by blocking fraudulent inventory.

"The idea is to scale what we’ve done in the US and the UK to other markets as they become ready," Montgomery explains. 

Part of this is about being ahead of the curve, as certain ad markets become more developed. 

"It’s clear our approach in Asia will be different to working in Europe," Montgomery says, noting that some of the network’s key partners, such as DoubleClick, are not as established in markets such as China. 

"In the UK, we already have a number of brand-safety initiatives in place," he adds. "The UK uses the same anti-piracy blacklists as the US and has started to measure viewability in the same way."

In the UK, many of these strategies are devised through JICWEBS, a cross-industry committee whose members include the IPA, ISBA and the Internet Advertising Bureau.

"Group M are, under JICWEBS, focused on brand safety and are leading stakeholders on viewability and fraud," Steve Chester, director of data and in-dustry programmes at the IAB, says. "They are one of the leaders from an agency point of view. John’s appointment is very strong."

Others are more cautious, noting that Montgomery has a tough job ahead. "It’s a brave soul that would take that role on, because it’s a minefield in media and always has been," Mark Finney, director of media and advertising at ISBA, says. 

Everyone speaking to Campaign blamed the complexity of the market for the rise of ad fraud.

"It’s been the complexity that’s allowed the fraudsters in," Montgomery says. "It’s a big business, and
a lot of it is operated out of eastern Europe or Asia, so you can’t litigate."

Marco Bertozzi, global chief revenue officer at Publicis Media’s Performics, also blames years of
opacity from ad-tech players. He points to App-Nexus, which last year drew criticism when it admitted that, after filtering for fraud, transactions dropped 65%. 

"The main issues come from the arms race with fraud technology and that finds its best home in the long tail of inventory in open exchange," Bertozzi says. "For many years, the exchanges, demand-side platforms and sell-side platforms took little responsibility for the quality of what inventory was being delivered."

Now that Group M has taken the plunge, will Publicis follow suit? Bertozzi says the group takes a "systematic approach" to the online risks. He points to VivaKi Verified, the certification process for Publicis’ programmatic arm. 

"We built the whole infrastructure and approach around brand safety and tech assurance from the get-go," he adds. "We don’t believe that one person can genuinely deliver against that globally."

Omnicom and Dentsu Aegis Network did not respond to requests for comment.

‘We can’t do nothing’

There are advantages to having a single spokesman, with Montgomery able to act as a public pressure point on the big tech publishers. 

One example is Facebook, which has until recently held off allowing third-party verification tools on its platform. Chester describes the measurement it does allow as a "workaround".

"We are pushing the Facebooks as hard as we can to allow our measurement tags in," Montgomery says.  "You can’t measure yourself – that’s where the discomfort lies. Facebook is listening, however. We talk to them all the time."

But he doubts that publishers and platforms have intentionally been dragging their heels on issues such as fraud. "They realise that if we don’t fix fraud in the long term, it will seriously affect their business model," Montgomery says. "There is not a large, premium publisher that is not very, very concerned by this and doing what they can."

Facebook and Google declined to comment.

Montgomery knows the strategies that worked in the US won’t necessarily work elsewhere, and he is currently conducting an audit across Group M’s markets to determine what brand-safety tools are being used globally.

He’s also trying to achieve "quick wins" in the short term, such as rolling out blacklists that prevent ads appearing against piracy sites, since the list looks much the same globally. In addition, Montgomery is encouraging Group M’s partners, such as Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify, to scale into different markets. It’s a major commitment, and he knows it could take "a long time" to roll out brand-safety standards globally.

"But we can’t do nothing," Montgomery says. "We’ve had success in the US and really managed to move the needle. With the right brand-safety technology in place, we can have it under control."

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