Earlier this month, ad land was caught by surprise with news that many major advertisers in the United Kingdom are pulling all their ad spending on Google and YouTube until the Internet giant fixes problems on its advertising platforms.

A French advertising group, Havas, the world’s sixth-largest marketing services group, pulled all its ad spend from Google and YouTube in an industry first. 

The group spends about £175 million on digital advertising on behalf of clients like O2 and Royal Mail in the United Kingdom each year. Havas said it had taken the step after talks with Google had broken down because the tech company had been “unable to provide specific reassurances, policy, and guarantees that its video or display content is classified either quickly enough or with the correct filters.”

Other than Havas, the UK government, Guardian, BBC, and Transport for London are among a group of growing organisations joining forces in pulling advertising from Google and YouTube to twist the arms of the Internet giant to do more to police the content where ads are served on the platforms.

Gone are the days when Internet companies could get away with the excuse that the Internet is a cowboy town impossible to police. Advertisers are now pushing for change by holding back their wallets.

And guess what? It is working.

In the United Kingdom alone, Google made US$7.8 billion in advertising revenue last year, accounting for 8.6% of the company’s total sales. While the boycott is just a small fraction of the group’s earnings, it could escalate into a global boycott if other advertisers around the world follow suit.

Media-buying companies are growing increasingly resentful of the power held by Google and Facebook, which are deemed to be operating a global duopoly over online advertising.

The backlash is largely against the practice of programmatic trading, which automates the buying and selling of advertising inventories online. Providers like Google and Facebook appear not to be doing enough to tackle unsafe content like terrorism and extremist material, which are definitely not brand safe for advertisers in just about any country in the world.

It is no longer acceptable for advertisers to just shrug their shoulders and expect to be let off by consumers with an “it happens” footnote when their ads appear next to a religious extremist video recruiting terrorists, for example.

If the consumers go after the advertisers, the advertisers will go after their ad-buying agencies, which, in turn, will have to take it to Google and Facebook. The two Internet giants have been slow to address the issue previously, but will be compelled to do more now.

On a related note, is this the time for publishers to step in and fill the gap for premium ad buys in a safe, curated content environment for brands?

After all, media publishers have been in the business of running trusted, brand-safe ads for decades via traditional print and broadcast media channels. In the digital age, a publisher’s greatest asset is the publisher’s premium content branding itself, something that can only be earned through age and street cred.

Some first moves have already been made to tackle the prevalence of third-party programmatic ad buys.

Early last year, German publisher Axel Springer, wary of being overly dependent on third-party platforms for traffic, decided to fight back by launching its own news aggregator platform, Upday, borne out the publisher’s partnership with Samsung.

Upday seeks to expand from the current four countries to 16 this year and is already installed in more than 10 million Samsung phones. It has more than 1,200 publishers on board, including the likes of The Economist, The Daily Telegraph, Le Figaro, Der Spiegel, and Axel Springer publications. 

It will be interesting if a news publisher or a group of news publishers will be able to crack the duopoly of Facebook and Google in online advertising.