Brand Safety Advice from BRANDED’s Co-Creators

Jane O'Hara
Jane O'Hara
Brand Safety Advice from BRANDED’s Co-Creators

I recently connected with Claire Atkin, who co-writes BRANDED with Nandini Jammi. Each week, they offer smart, down-to-earth brand safety advice for marketers.

I knew the ad publishers who read our blog would find their perspectives equally helpful, as we’re all aligned in creating user-first ad experiences that boost engagement and revenue.

My recent interview with Claire and Nandini feels particularly relevant in this moment, as publishers are more cautious about ad placements and user privacy — and wary of lowering their CPMs.

"We’ve found high-profile hate and disinformation sites on every site list we’ve ever reviewed...From hate speech to coronavirus conspiracy theories — it’s all funded by our ad dollars."
Claire Atkin, BRANDED

What inspired you to create BRANDED?

We are both career tech marketers. Nandini runs Sleeping Giants and Claire has been active in election observation. We’ve both spent a lot of time trying to get to the bottom of why there’s so much hate speech and fake news out there.

The answer is really pretty simple: because marketers are funding it. Marketers don’t know where our ad dollars are going, and we don’t really understand how the advertising supply chain operates, so it’s easy to fund bad actors.

We started BRANDED to help fellow marketers. It’s hard to figure out the opaque world of digital advertising, but marketers have to start paying attention, because our everyday decisions can create real-life problems in our society. It’s like there’s a giant machine behind a curtain and we’re blindly pulling levers without realizing the consequences.

How do you define and determine brand safety for digital advertising?

Don’t fund bad faith publishers or organizations. Our ads should not be funding white supremacy, hate, propaganda, or disinformation.

A good way to think about brand safety is, is it people safe? If it actively harms people, then it’s probably not brand safe either.

What advice are you offering the marketers in your audience right now, given what you describe as the “lemon market” of ad tech?

We recommend creating allow lists. Instead of letting your ads run on hundreds of thousands of mystery sites, identify the ones that you want your brand to be on and the ones that are driving real engagement. Cancel out the rest.

The best ROI will be on hard news, so look there first. Go for higher CPMs too — that’s where the value is. Lower CPMs seem attractive, but if you sit down and do the math, you’ll find that they’re not driving awareness or conversions. Why waste your time?

What do you think led to so many lemons/worthless sites?

Setting up a garbage website is an easy, legal way to steal money.

What could the ad publishers in our audience do right now to offer greater transparency and brand safety for their advertisers?

"Give your advertisers transparency into where the ads are being shown — whether that's specific sites within your portfolio or even category pages on a single domain. Let them have the option to allow or exclude those permutations."
Nandini Jammi, BRANDED

You’ve been advocating for more news advertising. Where else do you see bright spots on the horizon?

Together, programmatic advertising, social media, and marketers misunderstanding brand safety have contributed to the decimation of the news industry. Local news is teetering on the edge of extinction. Over 36,000 newsworker jobs have been lost since COVID began.

The bright part is there is a way out of this mess. We know that if marketers take back control of their budgets and spend them on the institutions that matter to their customers and to their communities, we can bring back journalism jobs.

You’ve encouraged marketers to check their site lists from ad exchanges. What has surprised you most about those site list discoveries?

We’ve found high-profile hate and disinformation sites on every site list we’ve ever reviewed. Every single one. From hate speech to coronavirus conspiracy theories — it’s all funded by our ad dollars.

Do you have the same safety concerns for direct vs. programmatic ad buys?

It depends. Direct buys can still use keyword blocking to block certain news stories. Keyword blocking is appropriate for certain cases, but we’re seeing brands wholesale blocking hundreds and sometimes even thousands of words. On these lists are words like “trans,” “racism,” and “blood.”

This withholds ad revenues from news organizations that have to use these words to tell news stories.

Do publishers who offer direct buys of native ads using first-party data need to worry about brand safety?

We don’t cover native advertising, generally. But it’s better than programmatic because it has a higher ROI and marketers have much more control over where it goes.

You recently shared the pitfalls of keyword exclusion lists Given the current, cautious ad buying environment, which ad targeting tactics (negative, behavioral, frequency capping, etc.) offer the greatest brand safety?

Being next to “negative” news is not brand unsafe. Funding bad faith publishers is brand unsafe. Know the difference between having your ad on Breitbart (bad faith) and having your ad on a Washington Post article covering job losses (quality journalism).

Anything else you'd like to share?

Check your inventory! It’s likely you’re offering hate and disinformation sites to unsuspecting brands. Advertisers expect ad tech companies to do basic inventory checks for them. If you’re not protecting their brands from bad actors, they’re going to go to take their business to a company that can.

Nandini Jammi is the co-founder of Sleeping Giants. She has been recognized by Business Insider as one of the industry leaders “fixing” digital advertising. Digiday named her a Digiday Changemaker. In 2019, Sleeping Giants won a Gold Cannes Lion Award for Best Social Media Campaign and a People’s Voice for Public Service and Activism Webby Award.

Claire Atkin runs First Mountain, a B2B SaaS marketing agency. She holds a certificate in International Election Observation from the Global Campus for Human Rights and has worked as a deputy election commissioner and briefs government officials about disinformation in the ad tech space.

Together, Nandini and Claire write BRANDED at

Thanks to Nandini and Claire for sharing their advice and perspectives.

Jane O'Hara
Jane O'Hara

Jane is the Senior Marketing Manager at Kevel. She enjoys discovering user-first ad platforms and articulating the value of Kevel's ad serving APIs.