WPP boss Martin Sorrell lays into Google: 'Step up and take responsibility' for the content posted on your sites

Martin sorrell david abraham ronan harrisLara O’Reilly/Business Insider(L-R) Channel 4 News anchor Krishnan Guru-Murthy; WPP CEO Martin Sorrell; Google UK managing director Ronan Harris; Channel 4 CEO David Abraham at the IPA’s Festival of British Advertising in London.

Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the world’s largest advertising agency holding company, WPP, has called on Google to “step up and take responsibility” for the content posted to its platforms.

Speaking on a panel — joined by Google’s UK managing director Ronan Harris — at the Festival of British Advertising in London on Friday, Sorrell said the search giant had not done enough to allay advertiser concerns about the safety of their brands on its platforms.

His comments followed a high-profile investigation by The Times newspaper, which found a number of big brand ads appearing next to terror-related videos on YouTube and hate sites funded by advertising facilitate by Google’s technology.

When the article was brought up, Harris attempted to say Google had been able to “allay [advertiser] concerns by and large” and explain the work it does to prevent these types of incidents from happening.

But Sorrell interjected.

“You haven’t allayed their concerns. You can spin this, Ronan, or we can speak the truth,” Sorrell said. “I have three major clients here in the UK who have contacted me recently, personally, and said brand safety is a massive issue and they don’t agree with what you just said.”

Sorrell then referenced a speech given by WPP’s third biggest client — and the biggest ad spender in the world — P&G’s marketing boss Marc Pritchard, who said Google and Facebook were not doing enough to meet advertiser demands around measurement, brand safety, and viewability.

Sorrell said brand safety issues were a “fundamental issue.”

He added: “You have to take responsibility for this as a media company because you are not a passive, sitting there, digital engineer, tightening the digital pipes, with your digital spanner, and not responsible of the flow-through content … you are responsible and you have to step up and take responsibility. You have the resources, your margins are enormous, you have control of the algorithms, and you don’t explain to people how those algorithms work.”

Harris admitted that Google doesn’t “get it right in every instance” and that “we are the first people to hold up our hands and say if we get it wrong, how we are going to make it better.”

He added: “We are very focused on making sure we build an ecosystem that works for everyone — the user, the publisher, and the advertiser — and if we don’t, if we somehow lower threshold of quality, or what we think is good for that ecosystem, it falls apart. We all lose trust in it.”

Sorrell also used his position on the panel to have a poke at Facebook’s efforts in this area. The social network has admitted on four occasions in recent months that it has made measurement errors, affecting the metrics that marketers, publishers, and advertisers use to assess their efforts on the platform.

He said: “Facebook didn’t get dinged from an advertising point of view. If you did this [Channel 4 CEO] David [Abraham], or if in our audience measurement we came up with three mistakes of that magnitude in six months, we would be out of business.”

Whichever figures you look at, Google and Facebook account for the overwhelming majority of spend and growth of spend in the ad market — and Sorrell said that imposes “a responsibility to change” — not just in the area of brand safety but also in opening up their data to third-parties.

Sorrell said: “Privacy is used as a fig leaf not to do things. That doesn’t mean we are saying, as an agency, that privacy is not important. We want to protect consumers against breaches of privacy [but] we want access to data to enable us to do things in a more targeted, more refined, more acceptable way. If walled gardens are not prepared to show their data, it’s getting increasingly difficult.”

In his defence, Harris said Google is committed to working with a number of external organisations — like comScore, Nielsen, and industry bodies like TAG and JICWEBS — to “make sure we set those standards and they can mark our homework.”

Get the latest Google stock price here.

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