Is programmatic buying fuelling sites such as The Real Singapore?

Over the weekend, MDA ordered local socio-political website The Real Singapore (TRS) to suspend its operations and shut down the TRS website and all its online channels including its social media pages.

The site was accused by the MDA for "deliberately fabricating articles and falsely attributing them to innocent parties" to draw traffic to the site and boost revenue.

In a statement to Marketing, a spokesperson from MDA said that while it cannot comment on TRS' operating model, it has been proclaimed by TRS on its website that it operates on advertising revenue which is used to cover costs.

According to the MDA statement, the website had published content which was objectionable on the grounds of “public interest, public order and national harmony". MDA also added that the articles incited anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore in an attempt to make “profit at the expense of Singapore's public interest and national harmony". The issue has drawn much visibility, with many either vehemently supporting or slamming the site.

Meanwhile, it appears some marketers may have unknowingly given their support to the site, whether aware or not.

Principal consultant & founding partner of QED Consulting Ryan Lim said in a conversation with Marketing that brands could be  fuelling the existence of TRS with advertisements, not necessarily with their knowledge. This is partly due to programmatic marketing. Here are screenshots of several brands appearing on TRS before it was shut down.

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“Currently not many marketing or communications professionals are familiar with ICOP (Internet Code of Practice). We rely on programmatic marketing and there is little human element to intervene if the site goes against brand's core values,” Lim said.

The ICOP regulates online content. One of the points highlighted in the code is that content should not violate public interest and national harmony. He added that while programmatic marketing is not meant to be restrictive, brands need to play an active part in knowing what ICOP stands for and its details. This is so that brands can better understand how it works and perhaps not fuel "hate" sites with blind media buys.

"Programmatic marketing is automation that facilitates scalability, but brands still needs to play an active part in the process. By knowing what digital mediums are likely to violate the ICOP, brands can then better brief their agencies to avoid them."

CtrlShift executive chairman, Reza Behnam agreed that brands need to be more educated in the realm of programmatic marketing, but was quick to add that the issue here is about brands knowing what is possible versus what is not.

“It's not about whether programmatic has the right capabilities. There are many quality control measures which one can use in programmatic to avoid this issues. White listing, as opposed to blacklisting, is one way to ensure that the ad is placed on a set of pre-approved sites. Is it more work? Yes.  Is it needed for every campaign? No. Is it more expensive? Likely,” said Behnam.

Behnam added that there is an "inherent self-policing" that needs to happen and which should be encouraged.  If a new site is morally objectionable or illegal, it is bound to be flagged by the industry or the various providers.  That site can then be immediately blacklisted from campaigns by a brands’ programmatic team.

“In the socially connected world we live in, sometimes good old fashion community and self- policing is more effective and efficient than technology algorithms who are trying to decipher morality, law and societal norms. Nevertheless, in this case, programmatic does have a solution.  It requires some consideration and effort, on behalf of the brand, to ensure that the proper placement is made,” said Behnam.

Safety measures are a must

Media agencies said that there are also enough controls and levers in programmatic media buying to avoid issues of brands advertising on such sites. This is especially because the realm of programmatic buying is not a one size fits all approach.

Brands need to first understand what conversations they want to be part of before nose diving into the arena.

According to John Thankamony, head of operations and analytics for Carat’s Amnet APAC said that while programmatic buying is often seen to be a "loosely controlled approach to real-time bidding, the reality is that programmatic can offer sharper, better integrated digital delivery.”

"In this age of content explosion and user generated content, it is important for brands, along with their digital agency partners, to define first what is appropriate to use as a communication platform to their end users. The power of programmatic lies in its scale and capability, but it still needs to be harnessed properly in order to get maximum benefit,” Thankamony added.

Adam Hemming, CEO of ZenithOptimedia said that today most agency trading desks are thorough in their practice of vetting of where they do and where they don’t buy programmatically. Another common practice for many clients and agencies today is to build up blacklists and whitelist sites.

“If advertisers are appearing on sites that they should not be, it is not a failing of programmatic buying, but rather the people doing it,” said Hemming.