The Brand Safety Playbook

The strategy you put in place to help ensure that your online ads don’t appear on websites or in videos or articles that conflict with your brand’s image and goals is of the utmost importance. If you avoid using brand safety measures, you run the risk of ruining your brand’s reputation. 

In this guide, you’ll get a variety of strategies and tools to protect your brand in the following areas:

  1. Programmatic Ads
  2. YouTube Ads (via Google Ads)
  3. Google Ads
  4. Facebook Ads

1) Programmatic Ads: Six-Step Process

Due to the real-time nature of programmatic, brands do not always know where their ads are going to show up at a given time. This can bring up issues such as poor ad-content alignment, or potential ad fraud. 

It’s great that machines can do most of the buying and running of digital ads, but sometimes extra safeguards and human oversight are needed.

Most advertisers like the prospect of increasing their reach, but that comes at the cost of brand risk. It’s up to them to decide how exactly they want to balance brand safety and reach.

No media buyer can guarantee complete brand safety, nor can they ensure that every single impression is shown to a real person rather than a bot. A percentage of any digital advertising spend, at least for the foreseeable future, will either be wasted on non-human traffic or served on inappropriate sites.But what we can do is fight tooth and nail for brand safety with strict measures, and share our best practice in the interests of complete transparency.

Step 1. One DSP: Display & Video Default Policies

When choosing a vendor for programmatic advertising, you should make sure to ask the following questions:

  • What inventory is available?
  • Where do you want your ads to show?
  • Who is your audience and can you target them with this platform?
  • What level of transparency is available via reporting?
  • Will the platform lets you add third-party verification if you wish?

We recommend using one DSP and one ad server. This means we spend less time on making deals and more time optimising our accounts (e.g. ad misplacement strategy), while still giving us more than enough reach. Saying that, if there are specific reasons to use additional DSPs, go for it – but make sure it’s a good reason and not just “reach”. Unless you’re spending millions a month, you’ll have enough reach with one DSP.Google doesn’t run ads on webpages that violate their policies. Anyone who uses Display & Video 360 (DV360) gains this first layer of protection.

Step 2. Additional safety options

Platforms like DV360, which is our platform of choice, have additional safety controls that allow you to block content based on their brand safety labels, as well as by sensitive categories like Alcohol and Tobacco.

We always encourage clients to choose the maximum safety settings when setting up campaigns. This is not a 100% guarantee to keep your brand safe, but it is a good first step to take.

There’s a wealth of inventory out there, and excluding certain categories based on their subject matter isn’t going to prevent you from getting the reach you need.

Step 3. Site and keyword blocklists

Alongside the efficiency of automation, there will always be a need for a bit of common sense. We like to add a third layer of protection from our own agency-wide site and keyword blocklists, plus any extras from clients.

Blocklists prevent your ads from running on particular websites, apps and video content. Most DSPs will allow you to upload a list of websites, apps, and keywords to your account and make them available for all campaigns to exclude targeting.

Using blocklists also help limit the risk of showing up on poor quality or harmful sites. While these sites may seem attractive due to low costs and low competition, you put your brand’s reputation in the crosshairs by placing your ads here.

Many DSPs have a pre-built list to exclude that is usually pretty robust (though you might not be able to see what’s on it), but to be as safe as possible our programmatic team proactively updates our blocklists whenever something unsuitable emerges to prevent any bids from being placed.

Step 4. 3rd party tools for pre- and post-bid checking

Most DSPs have pre-integrated 3rd party tools like Adloox, DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science. These companies provide additional verification to check where your ads have shown, often allowing you to see the specific pages your ads have appeared on . They are often available as additional targeting settings in your DSP, and can take targeting a step further than the standard “harmful” categories.

We use DoubleVerify as a rare third-party tool for this. DoubleVerify checks every site pre-bid to make sure we don’t waste a single impression on an inappropriate site.

It also monitors every ad served after we’ve bid in or even won an auction, providing metrics on viewability, impressions, quality, category, and also domain classification. If it sees that a site is unsuitable but it’s too late to pull out, it replaces the ad with a picture of clouds. We can then manually optimise using this post-bid data on a website-level. If a site starts to behave irregularly, it gets flagged, investigated, and then, if necessary, the site is excluded.

Step 5. Ongoing internal verification and monitoring

Relentless vigilance when monitoring your own placement reports (and adding any additional sites to your blocklist) is a strong optimization tactic to make sure you are showing ads on quality inventory. It is also important to monitor your exchange and inventory suppliers to ensure that they are consistently providing legitimate content to bid on.

After setting a campaign live, we manually vet sites, create daily reports and consult frequently with DoubleVerify and DV360. This step is ongoing because new domains are created every day, suppliers change their strategies, government regulation changes, and new tools become available. 

You can pull campaign reports, grouped by exchange, and see what exchanges your ads are serving on. Highlight your worst performing exchanges and remove them from your targeting. However, it is worth noting that this technique can have an impact on your scale. If your largest source of inventory is the worst performing, you may want to consider re-evaluating your targeting.

You can also use analytics to monitor programmatic campaigns. High bounce rates and low time on site may indicate several problems, such as bots, ad fraud, and low quality audiences.

Step 6. Safelist of known and trusted sites

This isn’t necessary for all advertisers, but for the most brand-safety conscious brands, it may be necessary to only run on an agreed safelist of sites. This does have an effect on the available inventory, but you get a guarantee of total control of where you are serving ads.

2) YouTube Ads (via Google Ads)

YouTube is the second largest search engine. Advertising through video campaigns is a unique way to communicate to your target audience and increase awareness of your brand. Reviewing certain settings when creating video campaigns is important to maintain brand safety. Below are the top four ways to ensure you aren’t unknowingly damaging your brand’s image.

Step 1. Network and inventory settings

Outside of YouTube search results and videos, ads can also appear on YouTube partners on the Google Display Network. Google claims these partner sites and mobile apps are high-quality and help advertisers expand their reach to additional relevant audiences.

There are three inventory options on YouTube: Expanded Inventory, Standard Inventory, and Limited Inventory.

Google recommends using the Standard Inventory option to only show ads on content which is “appropriate for most brands”, blocking content related to tragedy and conflict, sensitive and social issues, and strong profanity.

For brands concerned about suitability as well as safety, Limited Inventory also excludes mild profanity and suggestiveness. This is best for advertisers needing extra security, although performance is likely to be lower than Standard Inventory due to limited optimization potential.

If you have a limited video campaign budget, or are hesitant to advertise on placements other than YouTube directly, deselect the “Video partners on the Display Network” option in the video campaign settings.

Step 2. Additional options: Specific Targeting

There are different types of targeting options available for video campaigns. Rather than target all of YouTube excluding certain placements or content, layer one or more of these targeting options to reach the most relevant audience:

  • Keywords
  • Audiences
  • Demographics
  • Topics

Step 3. Blocklists

For extra security, we recommend maintaining your own custom keyword blocklist that is reviewed manually on a regular basis, where keywords are generated for categories relating to violence, sex, profanity, racism, sexism, extremism, religion, gambling, alcohol, and drugs. 

For brands looking to optimise brand performance, this should work well with Standard Inventory on the open auction, along with regular audits with third party tools like DoubleVerify.

Step 4. Third-party tools

If you’re using a third-party tool like DoubleVerify for programmatic, we recommend doing a monthly account-wide audit to compare their post-bid analysis YouTube’s reports. You can compare the percentage of served ads that have been deemed “Brand Safe”, and update channel blocklists based on the results.

Step 5. Monitoring Placements

YouTube cannot guarantee that all related content will be excluded. For this reason, it’s important to take additional steps when advertising on the Google Display Network and YouTube.

Previous placements can be easy to miss within YouTube campaigns. Navigate to the “Where Ads Showed” tab within your campaign to see a list of videos and channels.

Even if you are proactive with content and placement exclusions, your YouTube ads can still show before or alongside videos and channels that do not align with your brand. Use the “Where Ads Showed” list to determine any needs for exclusions. If you find a video you’d like to exclude, find the actual YouTube channel that hosts the video and exclude the entire channel. Moving forward, your ads will no longer show while users are on this channel.

If you have multiple video campaigns running or will in the future, create a placement exclusion list at the account-level. Having a predefined list of channels will save time when mining through placements for other video campaigns.

Step 6. Safelists: YouTube Select

YouTube Select unifies existing premium products such as Google Preferred and essentially operates as safelists that let you reserve ad space on hand-picked channels, approved by humans, targeting the top 5% content on YouTube in categories like music, sports, and gaming.

Step 1. Research Using Google Trends

Before launching a campaign, consider exploring your brand’s product or service using Google Trends. Let’s use CVS Health as an example. Below are the Google Trends results for the term “CVS Health”. Depending on the company’s goals for PPC, they likely do not want to display ads for their products and services if a user is researching information on CVS Health acquiring Aetna. These types of queries should either be excluded or broken out into separate campaigns and ad groups to increase control over the ad messaging users see.

Step 2. Avoid Regular Broad Match Type Keywords

Unless there’s a specific strategy behind it, avoid using regular broad match keywords. By switching to modified broad match (BMM), you immediately gain control over which queries match to your keywords and which ads you’ll show next to. This is especially important when news stories break. When searchers are looking for information on a major event, seeing ads can leave them with a negative view on your brand. Unless you’re pulling Search Query Reports daily (see below), it’s easy to miss irrelevant queries after a major event in your industry or industry with similar queries.

Step 3. Applying Shared Negative Lists

In the Google Ads and Bing Shared Libraries, you can create a general negative keyword list to apply to all campaigns. This list should include only offensive or inappropriate terms to ensure you’re never excluding any relevant queries. We recommend using negative phrase match keywords to exclude all queries containing the term. If you work at an agency, utilize the Google Ads MCC-level shared negative keyword lists and implement across all accounts you manage.

Quick tip: Nervous you’re excluding relevant traffic? Once a shared negative list is applied to your campaigns, Google Ads should alert you if your negative keywords are conflicting with any enabled keywords. You can easily delete individual negatives by clicking on the “Fix It” link.

Step 4. Scripts and other third-party tools

The world of scripts is what makes paid search so much fun! There are thousands of scripts on the internet that can help monitor your search activity depending on your needs, such as our scripts for enforcing “exact” exact match or checking your own landing pages for errors.

One issue with paid search is when fraudulent companies advertising counterfeit products and bid on brand terms (i.e. keyword hijacking). Although Google tries to make sure this doesn’t happen, Auction Insights and scripts that visualise its data can help advertisers track competitor activity and act accordingly.

For the most brand-safety conscious advertisers, there are also third-party solutions like BrandVerity and Adthena, which have alert systems that detect anomalies in bidding patterns to spot infringements.

Step 5. Regularly Pulling Search Query Reports

Mining through Search Query reports is critical to ensure you are targeting the best audiences for your brand. We sometimes forget the queries that generate relatively low impressions and cost. Pay attention to the low-cost queries and add negative keywords to your shared lists if the queries do not align with your brand.

4) Facebook Ads

The Facebook platform is becoming more expansive and reaches further than ever before, making it more difficult to police where content is seen and how it impacts the perception of individual brands. Facebook has responded by adopting new advertiser guidelines and developing new tools, controls and features that help advertisers publish content and advertising messages in a more brand-safe environment.

All publishers and content creators must adhere to Facebook’s Community Standards, which include policies that prohibit hate speech, violence, or similarly extreme content. Their Monetization Eligibility Standards provide guidance around the types of publishers, creators, and content that can earn money with Facebook advertising. 

Step 1. Choosing inventory

Traditional Facebook ads are shown within the Facebook family of apps (Facebook, Instagram or Messenger) and are guaranteed to be shown in their own ad space, meaning they cannot be associated with any negative content.

However, if you are running ads on the Audience Network, or in video content, there is no guarantee that your ad will be served next to content that is against your brand guidelines.

According to Facebook, “content that’s excessively controversial or offensive, such as full nudity, excessive violence, terrorist acts, or misinformation identified by third-party fact-checkers, is excluded by default”. Additionally, there are three inventory options for advertisers on the Audience Network, Instant Articles and in-stream videos ads: Full Inventory for minimal safety, Standard Inventory for moderate safety, and Limited Inventory for maximal safety.

You can find a full breakdown of what each of them include and exclude on Facebook’s Business Help Centre page.

Advertisers running ads on the Audience Network and Video content should select Limited Inventory, which excludes all moderate and sensitive content for both In-stream Videos and Instant Articles and Audience Network. Those that are very concerned about brand safety should only run on the Facebook and Instagram news feeds. 

Step 2. Additional controls: Placement opt-outs

Facebook enables you to opt-out of specific placements and avoid showing ads in places like Instant Articles, or Messenger. During the ad creation workflow, you’ll be asked where you want it to appear on ‘Placements’ beyond Facebook, such as Instagram, Audience Network, Messenger, etc.

To choose ad placement in Ads Manager, first go to Ads Manager, choose the campaign objective and scroll to the Placements section. Automatic Placements will be the default selection. To exclude certain placements, choose Edit Placements and then uncheck the box next to each placement to remove it. If you don’t see a box, your ad type or objective doesn’t support the placement.

Step 3. Blocklists

These should be applied at account level through the business manager, rather than on a campaign basis. 

Blocklists prevent your ads from running on particular websites, apps and Facebook Pages. If you’re running in-stream video, Audience Network, and Instant Articles, you can upload a list of Pages, websites, and/or apps in Business Manager. blocklists must be .CSV or .TXT files and can be applied at the account level. Blocks apply across platforms, but you will need to block all aspects of a publisher (domain, app, and Facebook Page), to ensure delivery is completely blocked.

Blocklists can be used to prevent ads showing within:

  • Pages participating in the Facebook in-stream video placement
  • Websites and apps within the Audience Network
  • Domains of specific publishers for the Instant Articles placement

To create a blocklist, follow these steps:

  1. Create a new Excel file and save it as a .csv. Name it descriptively as the file name will become your blocklist name in Business Manager (though you can edit the name later).
  2. Paste the URL(s) you would like to block delivery to in a list in column A

To block a publisher across all placements, you need to include all their URLs; ie, Facebook Page URL, website URL and any app store URLs.

To block a Facebook Page for the in-stream video placement, add URLs in the format plus the ID of the Page. To find the Facebook ID of each Page, visit the Page, click About and copy the Page ID

For example, Page ID 12345678 would be listed in your blocklist as

You don’t need to block website subdomains, only top-level domains. For example, will be blocked if you include

  1. Save the file. 

You can now upload the blocklist to Business Manager and apply it to ad accounts or campaigns. Simply go to Business Manager and click on Brand Safety in the menu. Click on blocklists from the left navigation, then click on Create blocklists and upload your saved file.

From there, you can choose where this blocklist is applied with the Add or Remove button to Apply to all ad accounts, or toggle only the ad accounts of your choice in your list. 

Now when you create a campaign in Ads Manager, you’ll see your blocklist(s) applied to your ad accounts at the ad set level, ready to work on your ad.

Add a blocklist to your ad set in Ads Manager:

  1. Go to Ads Manager, choose your campaign objective, name your campaign and add audience details.
  2. In the Placements section, select Edit Placements.
  3. Click Apply blocklist and choose the blocklist(s) you’d like to use. blocklists set up at the ad account level will automatically be applied. You can also click Ad Set blocklists to add a blocklist unique to this campaign. If you haven’t got any blocklists, you can choose Create a blocklist to make one.
  4. Finish implementing the rest of your settings and creative to finish.


Publisher List

Prior to running your campaign, you can review a complete list of publishers and places where your ads could run across in-stream video, Instant Articles, and Audience Network. You then have the option to block some of those publishers by adding them to your blocklist.

You can download and review the most current list of (thousands of) URLs where Facebook could place your ads. Not all placements are included in the list, which currently only includes Facebook in-stream videos, Audience Network in-stream videos, Audience Network native, banner and interstitial ads and Audience Network rewarded videos. The list is constantly changing and Facebook updates it regularly.  You can see the date a URL was added by downloading the list and checking the Date Added column.

To download the current list:

  1. Go to Business Manager and open the Brand Safety page in the top-left corner menu bar
  2. Click Publisher reports in the left-hand menu
  3. Click on Download Publisher List

Step 4. Third-party tools

If you have robust brand safety processes in place, you probably don’t need extra third-party tools for Facebook. However, advertisers that are very concerned about brand safety may benefit from extra protection.

Tools like DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science, Zefr and Openslate allow you to monitor more specific content avoidance categories and automate blocklists across various social platforms with real-time analysis, although this doesn’t apply to in-feed ads (only the Audience Network). If you’re already using DoubleVerify, for example, for your programmatic advertising, you can apply the same brand safety profile on Facebook.

We also use DoubleVerify to measure how long someone looked at it and how much of it was seen for clients who are concerned with viewability, because although Facebook allows you to see who has seen your ad, it gives no view on how quickly someone scrolled past it.

Step 5. Review placements

Once a campaign is live, you can download a publisher delivery report to see where your ads actually appeared.

To download the report:

  1. Go to Business Manager and open the Brand Safety page in the top-left corner menu bar
  2. Click Delivery reports in the left-hand menu
  3. Select a placement in the dropdown and download the report

We recommend reviewing placements where your ads have shown on a quarterly basis to check for any undesired placements. 

If there are any issues, update your blocklists accordingly.

Step 6. Publisher Allow Lists

If your blocklist and inventory measures are robust, that should be more than enough for brand safety. However, advertisers looking for optimum control can also use Publisher Allow Lists and Content Allow Lists to select the content they appear on.
Publisher Allow Lists are basically safelists of Audience Network publishers advertisers can choose for their ads to appear on. As new apps are added to the Audience Network every day which are automatically eligible for ad delivery, this can be an easier option than relying on blocklists. They work similarly to blocklists on the Brand Safety page in Business Manager, and can be applied to ad accounts so that they are automatically applied to any new ad or campaign.