Al Jazeera's Michael Weaver on Brand Safety

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“If there is a default switch for news that’s off, if there is a second switch people could flip for ‘double off’ Al Jazeera would fall into that bucket.”

Since launching 23 years ago, Al Jazeera has expanded to more than 65 bureaus across the globe broadcasting to more than 220 million households in more than 100 countries. The Qatar-government funded news organization has built a reputation as the beacon of free Arab media, and for advertisers offers high engagement rates, and an ability to target well-educated audiences in parts of the world brands want to reach. But, Michael Weaver, Senior VP of Business Development and Growth at Al Jazeera Media based in New York, is the first to admit that Al Jazeera was never going to have an easy time when it came to making brand safety arguments.

Weaver explains: “Al Jazeera is in a unique position because if there is a default switch for news that’s off, if there is a second switch people could flip for ‘double off’ Al Jazeera would fall into that bucket.”

Weaver discusses the safety challenges of Al Jazeera in a brand safety-driven news environment, the wider challenges for advertisers, and the need for reform around brand safety.

When media buyers reject advertising on Al Jazeera (on brand safety grounds) what is their reasoning?

Nine times out of ten, well really ten times out of ten, they have not bothered to come to the site and read the content anywhere that they are buying any of their media. The reasoning goes something like this: ‘the news is scary, the Middle East is Scary, Al Jazeera is scary, the Gulf is scary’. They seem to operate in a risk management business or similar to lawyers. Many times, the only goal that these media buyers have is not to lose the client. It has nothing to do with actually pursuing what is best for the brand.

What is the case for advertising next to hard news?

Great marketing and advertising often involve differentiation and risk-taking – you can point to brands like Nike, Patagonia, and some brands taking some fairly easy risks. However, they are starting to understand the connection between the brand and the context of where they are putting their advertisements. As publishers continue to bend to the will of platforms and create safer and safer and more banal content online, they are going to start receiving a backlash.

People are going to go online and seeing bad or meaningless content and start associating that content with their brand. Research we have done, and other research out there, shows that millennials are more concerned with the ethics and ethos of the companies. For instance, are there mattresses being ecologically built? Are they anti-LGBTQ? That is a big shift. News will be the beneficiary of that.

What is your brand safety strategy to reassure advertisers?

We were not a very aggressive commercial entity for our entire past 20 years. We were essentially a non-profit and now we are looking for commercialization for the first time. So, we go to brands and agencies and we have conversations. Often the agency will be on board because they will look at the data for how our content performs. The agency will make the recommendation and it will get up to a certain level, and they will see ‘news is off, Al Jazeera is off’.

Following that we have a two-pronged approach: one is to categorize the content and offer some protections against language and placements against parallel industry content that may be negative, and simultaneously creating new content that is more commercial – we just launched a business section for instance, people will be more comfortable advertising next to. But we do not want to overcorrect – we do not want to become like softer aggregators like the Huffington Post or Buzz Feed.

How do you work with brands?

We do not try to sell to brands that are less serious because it would be out of context. We do not want to do a story about the crisis and have a Budweiser ad next to it. We are guarding our brand just as well; we are looking for engaged partnerships. So much of the hard work of advertising has been searching for a magic bullet for so long – whether it is programmatic or ad networks, or now, direct to consumer. The bottom line is you have to do your research, find a brand that fits and look at it and measure it and pay attention.

How significant in terms of potential revenue loss is the fact you are subject to such strict brand safety blocking?

Large – I cannot really quantify it, but it is very much on our radar. The preventing of ads next to hard news could be the death of for-profit-news.

Now the only true news outlets in the world are funded by state governments or billionaires. Washington Post, New York Times, and Al Jazeera. Most of the rest of the news media is really struggling. Al Jazeera is in an interesting position as we have significantly less pressure to make money. We want to allow our partners to make money so they will promote our content. There needs to be more work done and a unified voice making this argument for the importance of journalism and journalistic integrity and the news. The only way it is going to happen is if brands get on board and stop pushing for meaningless or clickbait type-only content.

What is the way forward to get a brand safety environment that works for publishers and brands?

The importance of context helps – and contextual brand safety offered through advances in ad verification will play a part. For instance, if earthquakes are okay and volcanoes are not or war in the Middle Eastern is taboo, but war in Eastern Europe is okay, this is very useful. Not every piece of content is for every brand – and we target very closely the brands we choose to partner with.

Secondly, it is about making choices and taking a stand. Al Jazeera spent 23 years as one of the largest and most influential broadcasters in the Middle East and Africa. We have also built a substantial audience in Europe and North America. We service an audience that a lot of people ignore or report from a colonialist standpoint.

We have developed an enormous amount of trust – you put the Al Jazeera logo on something it means integrity and authenticity. This is a great opportunity for a brand to appear next to the Al Jazeera logo. For instance, if I am a top car company, that has built an enormous amount of trust for their vehicles, why wouldn’t you want that kind of brand association?

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