Global news 2020: how brands can join the conversation

Senior marketers and agencies reveal strategies to reach premium, engaged audiences while minimising risk

In a big year for global events, news and politics, all eyes will be seeking out the latest updates, implications and outcomes. 

For brands, this brings a huge opportunity to capitalise on where big audiences will congregate in 2020 as these events unfold and to be part of the global news conversation. 
But how can they ensure they remain in a brand-safe environment while doing so? 

And, at the extreme end, where there’s obviously illegal or extreme content, "things are quite clear,"  says John Rudaizky, partner, global brand and marketing leader at EY. Consumers are likely to reject brands whose advertising appears in such inappropriate places. 

But media placement - particularly within an environment where there are unfolding news stories - is far more nuanced these days.

"The bit in the middle is probably the hardest," Rudaizky notes. "Do you let your ads surface in a politically-charged environment, for example? The issue depends on the kind of brand you are." Some brands would "have fun" in that environment; others would deem it suitable given the "macro trend for corporates to have a positive narrative and an activist role in the world". 

More still might avoid it altogether. So, while this significant news year promises significant audiences, marketers will be looking for reassurances over brand safety in this environment.

Humanise the tech
It’s an issue that needs to be tackled head-on, says Rob Bradley, SVP at CNN International Commercial, with the 2020 news agenda already set to include the US presidential election, the Olympics and the Coronavirus crisis. "There’s this big challenge that marketers have today to make sure they are advertising in a safe, quality environment and to the right audience."

Bradley believes there are tech solutions "which do add value," but he cautions that those algorithms will only go so far. "This is ultimately a human issue." In addition, he adds, brands can still play in a news environment but be more protected from hard news if they appear in adjacent content such as business, style, sport and travel.   

Rudaizky and Bradley were teasing out the issues at an intimate dinner among brands and agencies brought together by Campaign and CNN, and hosted by Campaign global editor-in-chief Claire Beale, to discuss how marketers can best take advantage of the global news conversation. 

In circular fashion, adland’s frantic search for digital reach and scale has sometimes led to unthinkingly juxtaposing brands alongside "toxic" content, in turn giving life to poor-quality news sites. 

Grant Millar, global lead at Spark Foundry, points to the downside in so much media planning now being  "completely homogenising... machine-driven, algorithm-orientated", rather than truly consultative and expertise-led.

Brand safety = positive
This leads to the need for a new approach from brands about their media choices. There’s a consensus at this dinner that, rather than continuing with that scale-based, non-consultative approach, brands need to start making positive choices about which media are the right fit. 

This would also mean framing brand safety as something positive rather than viewing it through a defensive, negative lens.
You get the media you pay for
Liam Brennan, global director of innovation at MediaCom, suggests brands and agencies should take on a more activist role by no longer supporting those sites at Rudaizky’s "extreme end". 

"The reason that there’s such a brand safety problem is that we’ve been funding crap." The industry has a responsibility to invest in quality journalism. Media choice should be one of  "suitability" rather than "safety", he adds - of selecting which are the right media channels rather than deselecting inappropriate ones.

This chimes with Verra Budimlija, chief strategy officer at Wavemaker. "The pushback I get from clients is quite often not just a brand safety issue, but making sure you’ve aligned [with the brand’s] ethics and moral purpose," she says. She quotes a sister agency which has recently won business by specifically using brand values to identify potentially relevant media placements.

There’s a responsibility that comes with being a media owner, Bradley notes. People go to CNN when there’s a major event and they need to believe what they are being told is real and trustworthy.  "When you have that sort of relationship with an audience as a media owner, that means they are engaged with you and that’s really where brands ultimately want to be," he says. "Where audiences are engaged and where they trust."

Trust, content and context 
For Ebru Ozguc, global head of brand and digital marketing at Vodafone Business, less is often more. "There is way too much content out there - so really my job is to make less content, which is more impactful." This is partly a brand safety exercise - to avoid unnecessary risks - but, Ozguc acknowledges, it sometimes means losing out on opportunities. "I’d rather have less content but higher quality," she admits."Brand safety is at the heart of everything."  How brands choose the partners to work with "is critical".

As Rudaizky says: "Whatever way you call it, we’re living in crazy, disruptive times, whether it’s through technology or media or world events. The role for brands and media actually comes down to trust."

Bringing together the three perspectives of media owner, brands and agencies is valuable for this debate, according to Millar. Around the table is "a broad consensus about the primacy of content and context in an increasingly changing environment where we’re seeing trust eroded in many respects."

Particularly reassuring, says Brennan, is  "to hear other people from brands and agencies talk about the return of context in advertising and media buying but also in the quality of the publishers we work with. 

"Because quality publishers and contextual advertising help build brands."