Canada's biggest broadcasters have a message to advertisers: TV is a safe place to spend your money.
That's the message Rogers Communications Inc. was pushing on Monday. The first of the three biggest media companies to hold "upfront" presentations this week to sell ad buyers on their upcoming TV seasons, Rogers executives have been playing off recent concerns about the transparency of digital media in their sales pitches.
"They often don't have any control over where they end up [in digital]," Rick Brace, president of Rogers Media, said in an interview.
In Canada, that point was illustrated recently by advertisers who faced pressure on social media to pull their ads from the Rebel Media, a website founded by former Sun News staff including Ezra Levant. While advertisers were clear that the site's content – which recently has included a video referring to disabled people as "freaks" and another questioning whether demographic changes owing to immigration amount to "white genocide" – did not mesh with their brands' values, many also said they had no idea their ads were showing up there.
The same was true of global advertisers who discovered through media reports earlier this year that their ads had appeared alongside objectionable, or even extremist, videos on YouTube. Since then, Google Inc. has developed new initiatives to identify content that is not "brand safe."
Part of the issue is that digital ad buying has become increasingly automated – through computerized systems known as "programmatic" buying – meaning that advertisers do not always have total control over where they are placing ads. Buying is instead focused on following "target" consumers that a marketer wants to reach, and showing them ads wherever they go online. Marketers can set parameters of the types of content alongside which they want to buy ad space, as well as blacklists of sites where they never want to end up and "whitelists" of sites they consider safe. But it's not a perfect system.
Mr. Brace said brand-safety conversations are already part of TV sales pitches behind the scenes. Rogers's biggest competitors – Bell Media and Corus Entertainment Inc. – are also holding their upfront presentations this week and will likely take advantage of this uncertainty in their sales pitches.
It's a crucial time: Rogers estimates it will sell more than half of its remaining TV ad inventory for 2017 in the next six weeks.
"[Advertisers] are getting more conservative with how they spend those dollars," Mr. Brace said. Rogers would not share specific advertising numbers, but a spokesperson said its revenues are "substantially higher" than they were at this time a year ago.
TV is fighting a behemoth, however. Digital accounted for $5.4-billion, or 41.9 per cent, of all ad spending in Canada last year, according to ad-buying firm GroupM. It's expected to grow to nearly 47 per cent of the market this year. TV drew just less than one-quarter of ad spending in Canada last year – that's expected to decline slightly.
Many broadcast companies are also digital media companies, competing with digital giants not just to woo ad spending to TV, but also to their own websites or those they represent through advertising partnerships.
"TV is under pressure. Technological change, streaming services such as Netflix, people watching TV on-demand, has all meant that the published viewing numbers aren't great. Money is still moving to digital," said Neil Johnston, chief trading officer for GroupM Canada.
Some of GroupM's clients pulled their ad spending out of YouTube following the reports earlier this year, he said, but that money has started to return in response to the work Google has done.
"I think it's a good sales pitch," he added. "For the TV broadcasters to highlight that it's a professionally produced, brand-safe environment will resonate with advertisers and ad buyers."
U.S. broadcasters also focused heavily on this message at their presentations to advertisers in New York last month.
"Brand safety is a really low bar and some companies can't even do that," Linda Yaccarino, head of ad sales for NBCUniversal, told the network's upfront audience. She emphasized that, with TV, advertisers know what they're buying and can ensure their ads won't be placed next to "objectionable content."
Ms. Yaccarino added, "we don't get to grade our own homework" – a phrase commonly used to criticize digital giants for being slow to offer robust third-party verification of the measurements offered to advertisers showing how many people saw their ads.
At the CBS upfront, ad sales head Jo Ann Ross referred to problems with "viewability," or verifying that digital ads are actually seen by people on a page; and fraud, where spending is drawn to ad space on bogus websites by bots masquerading as human visitors. Ms. Ross reminded the audience of advertisers that the network delivers "real people watching your commercials in hit shows with zero fraud, all from a source you can trust, unlike some digital platforms."
It's unlikely that advertisers will move away from digital media in any meaningful way, considering the coveted younger consumers who spend so much time on their phones or consuming video and other content through non-traditional means.
To build on the brand-safety promise, GroupM's Mr. Johnston suggested, broadcasters also need to focus on coping with those changing media consumption habits. Set-top boxes need to be updated to better deliver video on-demand and to provide more efficient ad-buying technology in that space.
"We would spend money on that, if the technology was a bit better," he said. "People aren't watching any less video. They're just watching it in different ways."
"The issues with brand safety have to be looked at in terms of scale and I think that we, as an industry, and the TV broadcasters specifically should be focusing their time and energy on moving the TV industry forward and not comparing themselves to digital," said Bailey Wilson, vice-president of TV investments at Magna Global, a division of IPG Mediabrands Canada.
"If TV broadcasters are looking to swing spending back to them, they should work on developing advancements in TV measurement and data offerings that allow marketers to react to the TV campaigns' performance quicker like digital can."