Havas, the French media agency, has joined the British government in pulling all of its digital ad spending from Google and YouTube in the UK, after it was revealed that government and corporate advertisements were being displayed alongside videos that advocate extremism.
Havas, one of the world’s largest marketing groups, spends about £175m on digital advertising in the UK annually. It said it was also considering a global freeze on YouTube and Google ads.
The UK government has also stopped its YouTube spending, which is part of a £60m annual budget for digital advertising, until the problem is resolved.
Google has already apologised publicly for the problem, which resulted in advertising from the Home Office, the BBC and Transport for London displayed next to hate-inciting and homophobic videos.
Havas, whose clients include O2, the telecoms group, the BBC and Royal Mail, said it pulled its ads because Google was “unable to provide specific reassurances . . . that their video or display content is classified [as acceptable] either quickly enough or with the correct filters”.
Google said it would change both its technology and its policies to give more control to advertisers on its platforms. Currently it flags and then reviews questionable content, and deals with about 200,000 flags a day. The company says 98 per cent of those are reviewed within 24 hours.
“With millions of sites in our network and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we recognise that we don’t always get it right,” said Ronan Harris, Google UK’s managing director. “In a very small percentage of cases, ads appear against content that violates our monetisation policies. We promptly remove the ads in those instances, but we know we can and must do more.”
Group M, part of the world’s biggest advertising group WPP, said it was monitoring the response from its clients before deciding whether to follow suit. But Rob Norman, chief digital officer for Group M, added that Google’s response to the crisis was “not appropriate”.
“Google should make it public that this is a flaw in their technology,” said Mr Norman.
UK government’s annual spend on automated advertising
Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP chief executive, added: “We have always said Google, Facebook and others are media companies and have the same responsibilities as any other media company. They cannot masquerade as technology companies, particularly when they place advertisements.”
Omnicom, the US advertising group, said it was working with clients “on an individual basis to address the immediate situation” but added that “there needs to be a sustainable solution”.
It continued: “We are very specific about what is and what is not an acceptable environment for our clients — this is not open to interpretation. Google offers highly relevant solutions for many marketers, but it must effectively manage its process to maintain advertiser confidence.”
Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, who has been a critic of the digital advertising market, said that “advertisers need to go back to basics to protect their brands from serious damage and to protect themselves from being involved in potentially criminal activity, whether it be supporting extremist groups or funding hard-core pornography”.
The UK government, along with a handful of businesses, including the Guardian newspaper and L’Oréal, have frozen their Google advertising accounts after their ads appeared alongside websites run by hate preachers, anti-Semites and white nationalists.
“We have placed a temporary restriction on our YouTube advertising pending reassurances from Google that government messages can be delivered in a safe and appropriate way,” a government spokesperson said.
Later on Friday, Google representatives were “summoned” to the Cabinet Office. “It is totally unacceptable that taxpayer-funded advertising has appeared next to inappropriate internet content — and that message was conveyed very clearly to Google,” the government spokesperson said.
In May last year, the Financial Times revealed that Muhammad Jibril Abdul Rahman, an Islamist extremist accused of funding the 2009 Jakarta suicide bombings, had been selling advertising space on his website to international brands including Citigroup, IBM and Microsoft using a service provided by Google.
After being contacted by the FT, Google cancelled the account and the advertisers asked to be removed from the site. However, ads for big western brands continued to appear on the site through other intermediaries at the time.
Additional reporting by Shannon Bond in New York