"Customers just aren’t responding to advertising the way they used to."
The modern brand-consumer relationship has outgrown its traditional structure. Consumers are no longer turning to brands simply to fill a product-shaped need, they’re also looking for philanthropic behavior, corporate accountability, ethical commerce and even life advice.
Amidst this shifting landscape, veteran marketer Nandini Jammi noticed a fatal flaw in brand strategy: while a brand’s messaging may align with its values, the places where its advertising appears is undermining it. To fix this, she and cofounder Claire Atkin launched their brand safety consultancy Check My Ads in June 2020.
With the launch, Jammi, who has been recognized by Business Insider as one of the industry leaders “fixing” digital advertising and named a DigiDay Changemaker, hopes to forge a new path forward for brands and advertisers.
Below, she catches up with us about how brand safety is inextricably linked with brand success, advertising landmines and the table stakes for brands in 2020.
What was your inspiration for launching Check My Ads?
The story [of how Check My Ads started] actually starts with Sleeping Giants. In 2016, I went to Breitbart.com for the first time, saw an ad for Old Navy, and thought to myself, “I don’t think these guys know they’re on a site like this.”
As a marketer, I knew that they probably didn’t know where their ads were appearing. That’s how programmatic advertising works; you just turn on your ads on Google or Facebook audience network and then your ads could appear anywhere on the internet. You’re not manually placing those ads.
So, Sleeping Giants began as an idea that if we tweeted at these brands to let them know their ads were funding this bigoted website, they would take them down. It worked really well and we ended up growing a community of nearly 400,000 followers who helped us notify companies everyday.
Marketers realized for the first time that they didn’t know where their ads were actually being placed. Even the UK government found out their ads were funding terrorist content. It was extremely embarrassing at best and dangerous at worst. I thought that this was a big enough deal that the ad industry would figure out a solution soon.
But that didn’t happen. Last year, I met my now business partner, Claire Atkin, and we [asked each other], ‘Why does Sleeping Giants still exist? Why do we still have to alert advertisers of where their brands are? Why hasn’t this problem been solved by the industry yet?’ So, we began researching the industry. We started talking to ad tech experts, marketing experts, anyone who would talk to us to understand what is keeping the industry from fixing the problem.
We realized that the ad tech industry is built on perverse incentives that work directly against the interests of brand marketers. For example, brand safety technology companies promise their clients to keep their brands away from hateful content. But their technology doesn’t know how to find hate speech or fake news. These companies don’t even have a working definition for what hate speech is. And they’re all running on black box algorithms that they refuse to explain to us anyway. So the average marketer still doesn’t know that their ads end up on hate speech and fake news, and they are usually in the dark until someone on Twitter flags it up for them.
What is the goal of Check My Ads?
After we saw what was out there, we started Check My Ads on the belief that you cannot automate your way to brand safety. Our mission is two-fold: one, to help brands weed out hate speech and fake news from their media buy; and two, to train marketers to develop safe and sustainable advertising strategies that align with their brand values
We want to help [brands] identify hate speech and disinformation in [their] own ad buy. Because of the way ad tech works, it’s hard to buy with media that aligns with your brand values. If you support Black Lives Matter, for instance, you would probably want to support Black voices in the media with your ad budget—like Black-owned media outlets, and Black podcast creators and newsletter writers. If your brand values—your promise to your customers—includes social good, you’ll want to put your ad dollars towards that rhetoric.
Why should brands care where their ads run?
It’s better to know where your ads are running than find out through a stranger on social media. But that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that when you don’t know where your ads are running, you also don’t know what your ad budget is enabling in the real world.
It’s really important for us as marketers to realize that the way that we spend our marketing money has a direct impact on the society that we all live in. It’s your responsibility to know what kind of rhetoric and organizations your ad dollars are supporting.
What is the risk for brands and advertisers who don’t think about brand safety?
There’s just so many! There is a big difference between how consumers reacted to a brand in 2016 versus 2020. In 2016, the idea that our ad dollars were funding bad faith publishers online was still novel—at Sleeping Giants, we were really patient with brands and put in a lot of effort to educate people.
In 2020, keeping your ads off hate speech is table stakes. We’re on a different playing field now.
We’re at a time where, in advertising, the environment in which you advertise is as important as the message itself. Where you advertise actually sometimes matters more than the brand’s message—it either reinforces your brand message or it undermines it. We have to think about who and what we are supporting with our ad dollars, because that is something that consumers are actively taking into consideration when they decide to trust a brand.
You mentioned that consumer expectations of brands have shifted a lot in the past four years. Do you think that the definition of what is considered “good” or “safe” for brands evolves over time? Or is there a clear right or wrong?
Where you advertise and how you choose to advertise is a reflection of your brand values—the values that you put on your website, that you tout to your consumers or to your employees, what you put on your investor pitch decks. The media that you choose to buy should be a reflection of those values.
The way that I look at it is, if you juxtapose your media buy with one of your values and it’s not aligned, then that’s a problem—not just in terms of a potential social media crisis, but also for your own employees internally. It’s a message that you’re sending to your entire universe of stakeholders when you either choose to uphold your values or to undermine them through your advertising budget.
Modern consumers are looking at brands’ actions comprehensively—not just the content that brands control and intentionally put in front of their audience, but things like how brands treat their employees and if they’re engaging in larger social issues and cultural movements. With that in mind, do you think brand ethics will replace products?
People buy from brands that make them feel good. They also buy from brands that their friends are buying from or that their friends would approve of, because we like to talk about the products that we value. It’s a product that we bring into our lives, so it becomes a part of our lives and we want to feel good about what we are purchasing.
So to answer the question, I think that brand ethics are already playing a much more important role in a customer’s buying decision. Especially in the past few months, we’ve really woken up to the hypocrisy that is taking place in the brand world. Consumers are really looking for a brand that walks the talk, that stands by what they market as being their values. I think Ben and Jerry’s is one of the only companies that has come out of this Black Lives Matter movement as a beacon of how it should be done.
Knowing that the importance of brand ethics is growing and will inform brand success in the future, do you think that brand safety consultancies like Check My Ads will become the future of advertising?
Brands are starting to wake up to the realization that in order to be brand safe, they must do good by their communities. That’s not easy sometimes. Between the pandemic, and upcoming US elections, brands are feeling paralyzed. Should they put out an ad promoting their product at a time when we should all just be focused on keeping each other safe and supporting our community? Should they even be advertising right now? How do they lead with courage and conviction instead of fear and reaction?
Brands can do a lot to navigate these changes, including hiring community leaders and empowering their employees to respond quickly. I do think that there will be more and more room for growth in values-based leadership in all organizations.
Customers just aren’t responding to advertising the way they used to. They have real problems and anxieties and they want to see brands are supporting the things they care about. Understandably, brands are feeling really nervous about what the “right” move is for them.
We believe now is the time to put performance marketing on the back burner and start thinking about how you can build meaningful relationships with your customers and gaining long-term brand affinity and trust.
What we do is help you re-imagine your marketing strategy in terms of how you can best connect with your customers. It means thinking outside the box. You’re not going to build a special brand through Facebook advertising. That doesn’t happen. You are actively turning yourself into a long-term brand and one that thrives in uncertainty and knows where it stands no matter where the winds take us in the future.
Do you think that brands will have to fundamentally shift their strategy when communicating with consumers in order to earn their trust?
In the era of social media, a lot of your marketing is done for you by your customers and by the public. If you want people to talk about you, well, they are going to be talking about what matters to them.
And what matters to people today? It matters that they’re buying from brands that care about them. The Black Lives Matter movement has pushed equality in the workplace to the forefront, so people are talking about harassment in the workplace, and racism and white supremacy in the workplace.
A company that takes the time to invest in partnering with and supporting Black organizations as well as promoting their talented Black and other marginalized employees internally, really taking the time and effort to invest in aligning with the values that they talk about in their marketing—that is what is going to drive brands forward in the future. People talking about you because you have given them something to be excited about and to support rather than running ads talking about it is a strong marketing strategy.
What do you envision for the future of advertising?
There is going to be a lot of demand and a lot of reward for companies that manage to find a better way forward and a better way to communicate with customers. I’d like to see advertisers start looking at how they can build direct relationships and direct partnerships with the people and organizations that are impacting society in a positive way.
And that means shortening the supply chain, that means taking out the middleman in a lot of relationships with the way that the current ad tech supply chain works. But it also means that advertisers—for the first time in a long time—will have control over their messaging in a way that they have lost because they have allowed a third party to be in charge of that for them. It’s going to be a shift towards taking back control of your ads, which really is going to be taking back control of your message.