Potentially brand damaging ad placements, when buying run of network or AU eyeballs targeting, is a frustrating side effect of low cost online advertising. As a digital media buyer I have run into this problem many times with publishers and networks.

It is usually something that your media agency has written into its contract – digital ads for [insert brand] must not display on porn websites, websites that have violent or sexist or racist content ex cetera – but it can still happen.

If you’re buying premium placements where you have specifically selected the website or the actual pages that your ad will run on, there is a much lower risk of damaging content published alongside your ad, unless it is an editorial article on a news site, which would just be plain back luck. If however, you’re buying low cost, run of network or cost per click activity, or buying on networks with international websites where you have opted for “Australian eyeballs” and IP targeting, you may get caught out with your brand in a less than ideal situation.

Jesse Martin articulates this particular problem very well in his Digital Ministry article Why cheap advertising can damage your brand. But we all have to stretch our marketing budget and achieve multiple objectives. Most brands can’t afford to buy only premium placements, most brand are looking for maximum reach for their brand and sometimes this means a portion of their monthly ad spend going to run of network, cost per click activity.

I have been in this situation when I worked for CareerOne.com.au. We were spending a significant amount of money, monthly, in online advertising. Our media agency was Publicis Mojo, one of the largest and most respected media planning and buying agencies in Australia, and still our ads were showing up on disreputable sites. It was a rarity, but then again, we only found out about it when an associate happened to see it there and alerted us to it. So here is the real problem, how do we find out if our brand is showing on inappropriate websites?

To my knowledge, there is no tracking for this. We can track by publisher and for premium media, by placement, and we expect publishers to give us a click summary report by site, but when you’re buying run of network, you’ve made a conscious decision to widen your reach and run your ads across a publishers whole network, which can comprise of hundreds of sites, and tracking in detail would be very expensive, going against the decision to buy cheap media.

So Jesse Martin says the way to avoid brand damage is to not buy cheap media, but its not that simple. So who is responsible? The media agency that you, as a marketing manager, have a contract with that explicitly prohibits running ads on compromising websites, or the network who is including said sites within its stable of content, or is it your responsibility to check every website?

Most publishers will not disclose their network list of sites. I’ve asked for it, from several publishers, several times and have been shown a selection of sites, but never the whole list. And this is understandable, this is their business and sharing this information could open them up to attacks from competitors. I’ve been privileged to see anything at all, and it has come from years of consistent buying and trust built between me as the client and the media agency’s relationship with the network in question.

So really, I’m no closer to being able to give you a definitive answer. Jesse Martin says the answer is simple – buy only through IASH accredited networks “only engage with online ad sales houses that are IASH accredited. Founded in 2009, IASH Australia exists to encourage best practice among online advertising sales houses through the adoption of an effective Code of Conduct.” And this is a good place to start. But getting an accreditation and then being constantly vigilant are different things. They should go together, but really, accreditations are something agencies and publishers get to tick a box, it doesn’t mean that they live best practice at all times.

My advice, it’s all swings and round abouts. Make sure you have terms and conditions in place with your agency so that if it happens to your brand, you don’t pay for damaging media. Give yourself and your brand the right to jump up and down and be outraged, but nothing is 100% fail safe. If you can’t afford to only buy premium media, sometimes you’re going to get caught in these situations. Have a plan and process for how to respond, and that’s the best advise I can give.