Mars and Unilever on 'moral and business responsibility' to improve online safety

Debate has moved 'from brand safety to public safety', members of new alliance say.

Global Alliance for Responsible Media: Rakowitz and Di Como
Global Alliance for Responsible Media: Rakowitz and Di Como

Some of the leading architects of the new Global Alliance for Responsible Media have spoken of their "moral and business responsibility" to improve online safety for both brands and consumers.

Robert Rakowitz, head of global media at Mars, and Luis Di Como, executive vice-president of global media at Unilever, spoke to Campaign at Cannes Lions, where they launched the alliance, which includes many top advertisers, all the large agency groups and some of the major tech platforms, including Google and Facebook.

Rakowitz described the battle for online safety as like "whack-a-mole" because new challenges keep emerging and said advertisers and agencies would struggle to make a difference on their own and need the help of the tech platforms.

He said: "This is our ocean plastic and we’ve got to clean it up."

Di Como added: "My wish is I can leave my kids with the iPad and feel that it’s safe."

Rakowitz and Di Como, who represent two of the world's biggest advertisers, said they first began discussing the idea for the alliance with two other senior figures – John Montgomery, global executive vice-president of brand safety at WPP’s Group M, and Isabel Massey, global digital director at Diageo – at the end of last year.

This is an edited version of an interview with Rakowitz, Di Como and Montgomery.

What are the ambitions for the alliance?

Di Como: We want an environment where not only our brands are safe but an environment where kids and everybody in society feels safe in their online experiences. The purpose of this alliance is to put safety at the centre and bring back trust into the advertising ecosystem.

Bringing all of us together for the first time – aligning on priorities, aligning on guidelines, creating new ways of working, new technologies that we can put in place, more people in order to address this – is critical.

Rakowitz: Where we’ve been has been marketers and the agencies [talking] with the platforms [on an individual basis] and it’s probably been on a market-based [local] level. When you actually do the maths – the number of advertisers, the number of markets, the number of platforms – it quickly becomes inefficient and it’s fraught with mishap [in terms of achieving anything collectively]. And it’s been reactive.

We want an inclusive [industry-wide] conversation that’s proactive in the defence of consumers [and] safeguarding brands and these platforms. Instead of being a game of "whack-a-mole" with only one hand on the mallet – meaning the advertiser and the agency – we need more hands on that mallet [meaning the online platforms too].

There have been previous industry initiatives to sort out online safety that have had limited impact. Why is this alliance going to be different?

Di Como: There has been a lot of progress. Unilever pioneered a responsiblity framework [for media measurement] that we launched in 2018 and we are a member of the Coalition for Better Ads, and there are so many [bad and intrusive] ad formats that have been removed. When we talk about influencer marketing, there have been billions of [fake] accounts that have been removed.

But in order to accelerate all of this, we are strongly convinced that working together we can tackle [online safety more effectively]. Yes, there have been initiatives before and there will continue to be. Has there been progress? Yes. Is it enough? No. We must never be complacent. If there is any single incident, we still need to tackle this. We have a zero-tolerance philosophy.

For zero tolerance, do you need 100% transparency from the platforms? Individually and collectively, it feels like advertisers have limited power to push for the platforms to be more responsible. The platforms can say they will be responsible, but what convinces you that Google and Facebook are going to be willing partners?

Di Como: All of the [internet] players have been in to see us, knowing there is much more work that needs to be done. They have made progress – you have seen the Facebook transparency report – but we say all the time: "This is not yet enough." And there are new [safety] challenges that are becoming much more complex. And it’s the same on Google.

We have been active [talking] to them, saying there are certain things that need to be changed on the platforms – for example, [policing] comments and it has been changed.

Rakowitz: When you look at this from the platforms’ side, to have the multiplicity of [different] conversations with the [brand] organisations and the [local] markets and the advertising agencies, it does not actually make sense for this to continue [and it is a good idea to work collectively].

We’ve got to be patient with our [tech platform] partners, but we’ve got to be impatient with our progress – that’s the key behavioural element that we’re trying to drive within this alliance.

Di Como: We, as leaders of the industry, have a moral and business responsibility to drive this and we will never stop doing this. It’s not us taking a limited responsibility [for brand and consumer safety]. We have a responsibility to put all of our efforts, all of our energy, to change [the internet for the better].

How much are you trying to increase self-regulation because you fear governments and regulators are coming?

Di Como: This alliance is not about preventing regulation or being pro or against regulation. This alliance is what we as an industry need to do. On regulation – as an advertiser, we welcome GDPR.

The biggest fear that we have is that our kids are exposed to things that they should not be – and that is what is driving all of this. In the case of Unilever, we touch 2.5 billion people every day across 190 countries and the fear we have is that we are not serving them and we [as brands] are not acting as leaders of the industry.

Rakowitz: We’ve got to start taking responsibility, holding ourselves accountable. Regulation can play a part in this and it might need to come into play. But this is not a self-interested play to stave off regulation by any stretch of the imagination. This is about marketers and media leaders taking accountability and responsibility, and making sure the reach that we drive is not just a source for growth but also a force for good.

Brands have been warning for several years about the "digital swamp" and yet more problems keep occuring. What’s Group M’s perspective given that Google and Facebook are Group M clients and you have many other clients who spend a lot with these platforms?

Montgomery: I started this role nearly three years ago and we’re in a much better space now than we were then. Google and Facebook have put in controls and mechanisms, and the conversations with each of us have been extremely constructive.

Yes, Google and Facebook are both clients as well as publisher partners [for Group M]. That puts us in a privileged position because we can both advise them and challenge them. It’s a little bit of a delicate balance for us sometimes, but it’s much more beneficial than it is a disadvantage.

Think about what they [Google and Facebook] have to deal with: they have a stupefying volume of user-generated content that is just going up and up and up, and making it more difficult for them. They have to deal with trying to control that through artificial intelligence, through policy – and in some ways they are losing the battle.

The conversation has changed from brand safety to public safety. When I phoned one of my clients about the alliance, he said: "I’ve got five children – of course I’m in." What’s not safe for brands is not safe for the public as well.

The area has become more complex and nuanced [but AI can help]. Can you imagine if we were able to share an algorithm that recognised the New Zealand shooting and immediately when that was recognised by Facebook there was an amber alert to the other platforms that could have stopped it? It would have stopped it being shared two million times. 

Rakowitz: We are going to be demanding [from the tech platforms] a lot of creative thinking, a lot of courage in terms of implementing solutions and collaboration in terms of making sure they are widespread and evenly distributed.

Some people say it’s impossible to stay ahead of the pace of technology and bad actors. Is the solution some kind of trusted spaces and kitemarking?

Di Como: At Unilever, we launched the Trusted Publishers Network earlier this year. This has different layers of control in order to ensure our [media] investment ends up in safe environments.

The challenges will always continue to evolve... [and we need] new mechanisms, new procedures, new technologies to shrink the problem. There will be incidents [in future], but there will be zero tolerance. How many controls that we need to put in [such as setting up trusted spaces] is something that we are going to continue to invest in individually and collectively. 

Rakowitz: The starting point is creating that foundation that shrinks the problem, allowing advertisers to have more viewability and transparency in terms of where their media investments are going. Ultimately, what we want to do is make sure is that these issues are properly contained and we don’t amplify, we don’t accelerate, we don’t fund, these things – either ourselves, our agency partners as well as the platforms themselves.

The platforms are struggling with the freedom of publishing and the volume of the content that’s out there and making some tough calls.

We want to be part of that solution [with the alliance]. We want to help them think more boldly, take better action, in the interests of themselves, in the interests of consumers, in the interests of society.

We can buy reach elsewhere. This is not about solving the problem so we can just continue to put somebody on the media plan. This is about the future of this industry, the sustainability of media and societal safety.

How big can the alliance be?

Montgomery: The wider the involvement, the better – from our perspective. We absolutely realise the hard work starts now. We are going to provide an action-orientated plan together. That’s why we’ve not published anything [yet]. It’s going to be made public and it’s going to be transparent, so we will be able to show the progress that we are making over the coming months. Hopefully, when we’re sitting here next year, we will have a very different conversation.

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