War in Ukraine is déjà vu with block list advertising issues

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Hello again from London, UK. 

No matter where you are in the world, it is impossible to be unaffected by what has been happening in Ukraine in some way. 

In this newsletter, I will discuss the growing “keyword” issue that surrounds the advertising industry — an issue that gained prominence during the COVID pandemic and has now remerged with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Something which, sadly, can’t be ignored as a point of interest and one that could affect your advertising revenues. Better to be forewarned than not aware.

And on a more positive note, I will also discuss some of the key learnings from our recent INMA Print Innovations Master Class

Print advertising is very much alive and well, and there is a huge amount of money left on the table if we ignore it. What we need to do, however, is recognise some of the ways we can influence media buying to our benefit.

Keyword concerns during invasion of Ukraine 

Going back a couple of years ago, here in Britain, like many markets globally, we saw newspaper publishers joining forces in the rallying call to advertisers to allow their content be positioned alongside COVID stories on trusted Web sites so they could continue funding our quality journalism during a period of crisis. 

Block lists can be damaging

Publishers asked advertisers to remove the top news brands from “block lists” (essentially, particular keywords such as COVID, disease, etc.), which keep a client’s advertisements away from stories about the pandemic. 

In the case of COVID, this resulted in news media companies being, in effect, penalised for producing informative journalism about the outbreak. 

Advertiser decisions to prevent their advertisements from appearing adjacent to news about the war takes revenue away from important journalism.
Advertiser decisions to prevent their advertisements from appearing adjacent to news about the war takes revenue away from important journalism.

The block lists prevented advertisements from appearing next to online stories with the word “coronavirus” in them. UK trade body Newsworks gave a passionate plea on behalf of the news media industry to the advertising industry to not block journalism with the removal of “coronavirus” from their block lists.

Their point was that readers rely on trusted media more than ever in such times, and that news media relies on advertising to assist in ensuring the public receive information/advice from reliable sources. 

The important role played by news media in reporting trusted and accurate news and information was generally acknowledged during the pandemic, and the feeling was that advertisers should support what is a crucial public service. 

Déjà vu?

There is now a feeling of déjà vu. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resurrected the block list issue with advertising agencies and advertisers. There is evidence some advertisers are pulling their ads from the war coverage, and it’s making it difficult for publishers to monetise readership surges. 

The Financial Times, for example, recently stated some advertisers have paused their ad campaigns, jeopardising the media’s ad revenue source. Some are wanting guarantees their ads won’t appear next to any stories that highlight the war, which, of course, could apply to the vast majority of news content currently. 

There have been stories of advertisers asking for a blanket ban (via block lists), of words such as “Putin,” “war,” “NATO,” etc. Some agencies are even widening the list — not just including specific words as mentioned here but also more generic terms such as “volatility.”

Highly prized dwell times 

Chartbeat reports the number of articles on the subject of Russia and Ukraine grew by a factor of seven the last week of February, a figure no doubt increasing each week since. This was from their analysis of 4,500 news media Web sites, globally. They also found users were spending, on average, 43% more time reading stories on the war.

Of course, dwell times around such stories/pages are highly prized in terms of premium selling/high engagement and the likelihood of customer interaction with ads in such positions. 

Research shows advertisers are not hurt by advertisements being featured next to trusted journalism.
Research shows advertisers are not hurt by advertisements being featured next to trusted journalism.

The dilemma is one, however, of ethics and brand perception. Who wants their ads to be positioned next to headlines of death and destruction? It’s not a new phenomenon. Over years now, advertisers have asked for avoidance of positioning next to plane crash stories and the like.

Now, publishers tend to take the view that this precaution and avoidance has all gone too far. There seems to be little evidence advertised brands will be harmed by advertising around any news stories (providing, of course, the messaging in the ads is not inflammatory or controversial) and that the effect ultimately is that it hampers and even defunds the role of quality journalism in a democratic society.

Support for quality journalism

As recent as last year, a major ad industry study found brands should support quality journalism and optimise ad strategies across all news genres. See here for details.

It seems to me that the general feeling in the advertising community is one of wanting to avoid misinformation. But it appears a lack of understanding and even, dare I say, an element of laziness from within advertising agencies who impose blanket bans is causing a bad scenario for trusted media.  

Fighting back

Some publishers are fighting back (my advice to you). Inform your advertisers and agencies that a “one-size-fits-all” ban on certain keyword block lists can have a wider effect on trusted news sites, which can ultimately not just serve its community well and accurately, but also can help monetise better for all parties in the chain. 

We should lead the charge on proactively informing that advertising with trusted media environments can allay fears of brand safety and perception. In a world where fake news and misinformation does indeed exist, we should not all be treated the same.

Lessons from INMA’s Print Innovations Master Class

I also wanted to highlight some of the learnings/insights I gleaned in our recent master class on print advertising. 

The recent INMA master class on print advertising offered key takeaways about the platform.
The recent INMA master class on print advertising offered key takeaways about the platform.

We heard from speakers the world over, all who pointed out the power of print — still — in this increasingly digital world. These are the key points I summarised, which I believe reflect what we learned:

  • Print advertising shouldn’t be an afterthought or an apology. It is a powerful medium in its own right. And when added to digital, it’s more powerful than we can sometimes imagine
  • We need to train/educate our clients, not just our sales people. Print creates a sense of trust, stability, and heritage. It can be targeted, personal, visually compelling, texture-rich, and creative. Do we portray that excitement when dealing with our clients? 
  • When dealing with agencies, try to target advertisers directly and give them the tools to debate media schedules and buying practices with their own agencies. 
  • Print advertising is a brilliant shop window to our brand(s) and other platforms for advertisers.

Craftsmanship, intelligent design, compelling storytelling tools

  • Let us help agencies/advertisers with craftsmanship, intelligent design, and compelling storytelling tools. Be consultative in our approach. Sir John Hegarty, founder of BBH and Saatchi & Saatchi and a true global guru in world advertising, pointed this out. There is a lack, in his opinion, of such skills inside advertising companies. We have these skills. What are we doing to educate and assist furthering and deepening the bonds with advertisers? Do we run internal workshops for advertisers? Invite them into your company. Let them see you are not “your father’s newspaper” but are as relevant as ever in 2022.
  • And then … let’s make them look smart. Make it all easy. Keep close to them.
  • Remember there are three personas to consider: the marketer, the creative, and the media person — all with different expectations. Think about what might be on their agenda and what might be important to them as individuals.
  • We need to keep innovating in our print products, technology, and our business models and ideas. Convey any changes with excitement and positivity. See link below for innovative print ideas.                       

Deep, experiential experience

  • Don’t overlook the scale, time spent, the huge attention print still gets from audiences and the effectiveness of print. Print offers a deep, experiential experience. And it’s perceived as high value.
  • Innovation cannot happen on its own. Work/integrate with your newsroom partners. No silos internally.
  • Don’t be afraid to bundle it with digital whilst still selling your print success.
  • Print should promote itself as the medium of truth. Do it with passion and belief. 

Create some magic

  • And … in the words of Marcelo Benez from Folha de S.Paulo in Brazil, when dealing with our agencies and advertisers, “Let’s create some magic that ‘makes their eyes shine.’” Make them think they’d be mad not to include us on their media buying schedule.

Overall, there is creativity and magic in abundance in print. We need to portray that magic and not make print as a perceived add on “because we just have to include it.” Make no apology. Print has value, print has worth, print is hugely effective. And when added to our digital advertising offerings, print is amazingly impactful in reaching huge audiences. 

There’s also too much money left on the table if we ignore it. 

Further reading:

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Mark Challinor, based in London and lead for the INMA Advertising Initiative. Mark will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media advertising. Sign up for the newsletter here.

This newsletter is a public face of the Advertising Initiative by INMA, outlined here.

E-mail Mark at Inma.mark@gmail.com with thoughts, suggestions, and questions or follow him on Twitter (@challinor).

About Mark Challinor

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