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SP Highlights: Disinformation and Ad Accountability w/ Claire Atkin Of Check My Ads

SP Highlights: Disinformation and Ad Accountability w/ Claire Atkin Of Check My Ads

The Sounds Profitable Podcast

Season 2 • Episode 32

Brand suitability and brand safety are topics that we’re never gonna get away from in any aspect of podcasting. Or advertising in general. And that’s why I was so excited to have Claire Atkin, co-founder of Check My Ads on the show earlier this year. 

Personally, as an individual, I support their movement and contribute to it every single month. I highly recommend listening to this episode, subscribing to their newsletter, and throwing a few bucks towards the only non-profit ad watchdog in existence.


Bryan Barletta: Hey, Bryan Barletta of Sounds Profitable here. After coming back from two conferences in Europe, announcing our first ever event for our sponsors on the Tuesday of Podcast Movement in Dallas this year, and prepping for our first two public research reports with my new partner, Tom Webster, I realized that I fully exhausted our backlog of recorded podcast episodes at the worst possible time, but with the influx of new subscribers to the newsletter and podcast, I realized now was the perfect time to highlight four amazing episodes from this season of Sounds Profitable: Adtech Applied that I'm positive you'll love. Oh, and if you'd like to learn more about our free and livestream research presentations in June and August, or attending our sponsored event, check out the episode description below. Brand suitability and brand safety are topics that we're never going to get away from in any aspect of podcasting or advertising in general, and that's why I was so excited to have Claire Atkin, co-founder of Check My Ads on the show earlier this year. This episode called, Disinformation and Ad Accountability is a great listen, and I personally, as an individual, support their movement and contribute to it every single month.
I highly recommend listening to this episode, subscribing to their newsletter, and throwing a few bucks towards the only nonprofit ad watchdog in existence.

Claire Atkin: My name is Claire Atkin, and I co-founded Check My Ads with Nandini Jammi, and we uncover the economic relationship between hate speech and disinformation and the ad exchanges that send them ads and money.

Bryan Barletta: I love that. Well, I want to ask a quick question on that. When you uncover that and you make it visible to everybody in the space, your goal is just to point out that it's happening, right? You're saying like this ad is on this piece of information, and then you're making it available for them to decide what they do next, right?

Claire Atkin: That's right. Every major ad exchange, really, has a policy that says they only work with premium publishers. They don't send ads and add money to publishers that promote violence or COVID-19 disinformation or what have you. They don't adhere to their own policies, and so when we point this out, usually the ads get dropped or the publishers get dropped.

Bryan Barletta: What I really like about that is you're taking the public response that these companies have said. They say, "These are our standards," and you're taking the advertiser's response and saying, "This is what we want to be associated with," and you're just pointing out that this content, with examples, doesn't align with what anybody has publicly said, and then you kind of turn it over for them, and so far, it seems that everybody who has engaged with it has realized the mistake and realized that the partners that they're choosing to work with might not be scrutinizing the inventory as well as they could, and we're kind of seeing a big change of that. We're seeing the reality that publishers can't or shouldn't be able to automatically sign up to just receive money. A human needs to vet that against their policies. Adtech can help a little bit by saying like what category of scrutiny you need to put into it, but overall, human has to kind of look through it.
My first big question to you is, "What should buyers, publishers and adtech companies each be held responsible for in that advertising ecosystem?"

Claire Atkin: There's a chain of command between the advertiser and where the publisher gets the ad, and that chain of command loosely goes like advertiser, agency, ad exchange, and then the publisher. Our general advice to buyers is don't trust anyone along that media supply chain. Don't trust the agency. Don't trust the ad exchange. Don't trust the publisher to maintain their own publisher standards.
You have to keep an eye everywhere along the supply chain, and that's why we called our company Check My Ads. It's because we need you to check your ad campaigns yourself. Get those log level files. Remove the personal information. We don't want anyone tracking anyone else, but see where your ads have gone, and identify the websites that are brand unsafe for you.
Maybe even go so far as to build an inclusion list and make sure to have brand safety guidelines. Those brand safety guidelines, they're there so that you can communicate what is and is not appropriate use of your ad campaign down the chain of command. When those brand safety guidelines are not adhered to, if you've communicated them clearly, that is your cue to demand refunds.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah, or stop working with those partners, all of those things. What you're saying when you say don't trust them is you're saying you need to audit it yourself. You should be working with partners that provide you the transparency and the ability to double-check or check your ads where they're placed appropriately. Those partners can help facilitate it. An agency can get you spend across way more than you might be able to do internally.
An ad exchange might be able to get you at a price you want or at targeting you want. That's all fine, but what you're saying is you can't just trust these people in the sense of like hit and shake, they're going to do what's in your best interest because you're one of many clients for them, and there's no reason why you shouldn't have visibility into it. This belief that if you know exactly where they're buying, you'll just go circumvent them and spend directly, that fear isn't real because they could have done that from the start by just not working with you and going to find those publishers through basic research that's probably cheaper. This is about visibility and holding people to standards, and holding them accountable for when you spend money with them. I love that.

Claire Atkin: Exactly, and so what can agencies do? Well, agencies in their turn, they don't want their clients to be upset, so how can they make sure that their clients' ads are not funding hate speech and disinformation at a time when we are in a disinformation crisis? The first thing that I tell agencies is you have to understand that disinformation works in networks. This is not a page-by-page decision. This is not a website-by-website decision.
You have to make network-by-network decisions. That is to say if Charlie Kirk is on and, you can't just take off, you also have to look at where else he writes, where else he is prominent, what other companies, publishers that he owns, so the first thing is to get a brand safety specialist on board who understands disinformation because it's not super easy, I understand that, but there are some key pieces of knowledge that they must have so that you can not only speak to your client, but also get the job done appropriately. Then, the second thing is maybe start to move clients away from real-time bidding because the system is not working very well in this particular way, and that's an opportunity to be creative. Again, I think it's part of a larger conversation to have, sort of bigger picture, but it's an exciting one. It's a creative one, and it's what agencies were meant to do.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah. I think that we've been lazy as an advertising industry, relying on technology to just do as much as possible so that we can move on to the next task, and we're not even monitoring the equipment anymore. That's part of the problem. When you say real-time bidding, I think what you mean, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, is you mean open marketplace, right? Programmatic is a neat workflow to make sure that you're buying exactly what you want if you do direct deals and private marketplaces, but the open marketplace means anybody who signs up to that vendor that you're buying from is eligible to get your dollars if that vendor says that everything works, and that is just proving to not have as much value.
That's why you're saying have an allow list from the start and say, "These are the places I want to be," and continue expanding it, instead of reactionarily removing things from a big, open place where you're never going to catch.

Claire Atkin: That's right. I think direct sales are still the most pragmatic way forward if you want to support journalism and if you want to stay away from things that are not going to help the ROI of your campaign. You asked, "What can adtech do as well?," and that's a really simple one for me. Like adtech should stop working with white nationalists. Adtech needs to ...

Bryan Barletta: Yeah.

Claire Atkin: Adtech needs to start to draw the line. How do they draw the line? Well, they've already started. Have clear publisher policies. Be specific about what you will and will not accept into your inventory, and have a clear contact email when people start to have questions, so when I contact an ad exchange and ask them why they're still funding Charlie Kirk, or Dan Bongino, or Glenn Beck, I want to be able to contact them easily and quickly so that I don't have to go to Twitter, so that I don't have to go to whoever's running their social media, so have a clear policy, make sure to adhere to it, and force your own standards, and then have a feedback loop.

Bryan Barletta: I love all that. You're saying don't have white nationalists on there, and I super agree with that completely, but just to fully circle that up, what you mean is if you have a policy not to support this type of content, you have to remove that content, and even more so, you should have ways to make sure it never ends up on your platform in the first place. I believe there's a network that you've talked about that ... Is it rumble? That is super cool with that type of content, but as an advertiser, you need to know what you're buying, and if that's what they're selling and they're okay with it, that sucks.
That's not where I want to spend my money as a consumer. Those are not the companies I want to buy products from in the future, but as long as everybody in that loop knows, I'm not happy with it, but it's not the same problem you're trying to address. You're saying when someone says, "We have perfectly vetted content that follows these standards," and then you're seeing this garbage on there, that's the problem, because advertisers are believing that statement, spending money with them, and you're pointing out, saying like, "Hey, this isn't true," and kind of a child could have vetted that and proven that right.

Claire Atkin: That's right. If you say that you never work with publishers who promote violence, don't work with publishers who incited an insurrection.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah. That's pretty clear-cut right there. You mentioned working with a brand safety specialist. We'll put it in the episode details if you have any links to it. Is there like outside of Check My Ads ...
Obviously, this is stuff that you do. Is there anybody else out there that you can point to? How do people find out more about this? Is this a career path that people should start exploring, because the two of you have built this into something really awesome, but there's room? I mean, there's people on Twitter that engage with you and help hunt this stuff down to make this visible so people aren't funding all of this. Is this something that we're going to see expand in the future?

Claire Atkin: Yes, we will be expanding into training and education simply because we are desperate to welcome as many people as will come into the tent where we understand how to draw a line. The very first thing that I would suggest is to sign up for BRANDED, which is our newsletter-

Bryan Barletta: Fantastic.

Claire Atkin: ... to, and that's the place where we have these discussions. We're putting out more and more information as time goes on. We are right now hiring in research, in editorial. We are going to be increasing the amount of content that we put out, not for content's sake, but because there are so many stories to tell and so many ways to understand how disinformation is still being funded by the adtech system. Our mission is to defund disinformation entirely from this system, and we are going to need everyone on board.

Bryan Barletta: I love that. It's so cool because I think that the three of us have a similar experience, that we were in all these roles where we saw these things and we pointed them out, and everyone's just like, "Just kick it down the line." Right? Like you can't fix it, it's big machine, that's how the industry works, and it feels like in the last few years, a bunch of us said, "No. We need to talk about this."
Maybe everybody's going to ignore it or a bunch of people are, but enough people will hear about it that they'll want to join fixing these spaces because there's value in them, right? Companies need to be able to advertise to grow as a business, small businesses especially in these things. They're the ones hurt incredibly by this because they don't have the power to fight against this stuff, so it's really cool to see not only the work that you've done, but that you're working to educate people, right? As a non-profit, you want as many people with this mindset, with this skill set out there changing the ecosystem for the better, and I really applaud that. It's very cool to see.

Claire Atkin: Thanks. We want more people to be able to draw the line. I know you work in podcasting, and podcasts are featured prominently in media this week because we're starting to have that conversation very publicly. Neil Young and everyone who supports a free and fair democracy and health information that can save lives is taking a stand against COVID-19 disinformation on Joe Rogan's podcast. Now, that is a huge deal, of course, and we're here because podcasting is a central force of our town square.
It is a place where we are having cultural conversations about important topics, and it feels intimate, and it feels trustworthy, and if you're advertising on podcasts where information is being shared that is going to lead to harm, to violence and to discrimination, that is bad.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah. Yeah. No, I agree with you, and so what's your general ... Podcasting is so different as a format, but it's so intimate and everybody laughs when we say that, but it is. It's in your ear. People are listening to this right now.
They are focused to it in a way that an article isn't going to get across them, so podcasting has tons of problems, the same way blogging does, the same way the adtech space does. What's like your one thing that you would tell the podcasting industry to prioritize to get ahead of this so that they're not seeing as many of the issues as we're seeing in the rest of the disinformation space?

Claire Atkin: I want to give you the technical details of what I think we need to do, but honestly, I mean you know, Bryan, that podcasting is led by people who are generally white, people who are generally men, and what we need for the entire podcast industry to do is to take a stand and say, "No, we will not flirt with white nationalism. We will not flirt with misinformation, disinformation for the purpose of discourse, for the purpose of having a debate." We are sick of hearing that it's worth platforming people who want to hurt minorities, who want to spread chaos for the sake of the conversation. That is a bad faith understanding of what we need right now. While anti-democratic forces are rising, the podcasting world has to take a stand.

Bryan Barletta: I agree with you on that, and if it was all for the debate for all the discourse, then those would be ad-free feeds, right? Like in that situation, if they were like, "That's the problem," these people have keyed onto something that monetizes well, the ads that these people sell, even (inaudible) work very well, and that shows that this is not necessarily what they believe, it's a business, and that business is dangerous and harmful to not just the country, but to the world, and podcasting has a real opportunity to get ahead of it, so I thank you so much for your time on this. I really hope that everybody in the podcast world subscribes to BRANDED, donates to Check My Ads. Sounds Profitable absolutely does donate to Check My Ads. I'm such a big supporter of it, and I really am going to make it a priority to make sure that more people in the podcast space know about you two and all of the things you do, because this is not specific to any one media format, but podcasting has the opportunity to get ahead of it and make real change quickly because there is a lot of problems in podcasting with this type of content. Thank you so much for joining.

Claire Atkin: Thanks, Bryan.

Bryan Barletta: Thank you for listening to this conversation. For the full original episode, which includes my conversation with my co-host, Arielle Nissenblatt, please check out the whole episode in the episode details. Sounds Profitable: Adtech Applied will be on break until mid-July, but we're really excited to bring you a whole slew of new content and guests. In the meantime, check out the download, our Thursday podcast that covers everything you need to know about the business of podcasting and why it should matter to you in 10 minutes or less. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the Sounds Profitable newsletter at

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