The industry has reached a crucial moment for self-regulation

The industry has reached a crucial moment for self-regulation

With a new government on the way, we must show that when the industry is called to act, it can do so successfully — this is where the Online Advertising Taskforce comes in.

With £4 in every £5 of our industry’s £37bn adspend destined for some kind of online advertising format, this is a pivotal moment for self-regulation. It’s also a critical one for the UK to maintain its role as a global hub for advertising and for advertising as the engine of the creative industries — one of the UK’s most successful sectors.

The UK advertising industry is a story of continued growth, almost doubling in real terms over the last 10 years and helping all kinds of businesses to innovate, compete and provide jobs. This growth has been fuelled by the digital advertising revolution, bringing great opportunity for advertisers both big and small. But there are also concerns about online safety, in terms of harmful and illegal ads and the protection of children.

It’s in this context that the industry has been making concerted efforts to raise public trust in its work, building on our world-leading system of self-regulation.

This is where the Online Advertising Taskforce (OAT) comes in.

Why was the taskforce formed?

In 2022, the government launched the Online Advertising Programme to review how online advertising is regulated, driven by a desire to improve transparency and accountability in the online advertising supply chain. At the same time, it announced that scam ads will be included in the scope of the Online Safety Bill.

An initial consultation revealed a strong stakeholder preference for building on the existing framework led by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), with the government recognising the regulator’s trusted reputation and growing standing for proactive regulation and in using digital tools.

There was also an acknowledgement from the government that there was a need to harness industry expertise and support industry initiatives to address regulatory gaps. In light of this, the OAT was formed.

The mission

The OAT, a collaboration between industry and government, aims to deliver a package of non-legislative measures to achieve two mutually dependent objectives: understanding and improving the evidence around harms, and looking at ways voluntary initiatives or standards could be improved to tackle them.

This translates into protecting users from bad actors, such as those perpetuating illegal advertising and scams, and increasing protections for under-18s by minimising their exposure to age-restricted advertising. The taskforce will ultimately help the government deliver an action plan, which can be read here.

How the industry is playing its part

The industry, through a number of working groups, is supporting the OAT in three key areas.

First, it seeks to inform any future legislation by demonstrating the effectiveness of existing industry initiatives, working to increase take-up and identify potential ways to bolster them to address in-scope ads.

These include the IAB’s Gold Standard, which drives the adoption of a range of industry initiatives that — among other things — improve supply-chain transparency and help tackle scam ads. This creates a better ecosystem for all parties and a better digital experience for consumers.

The ASA’s Intermediary and Platform Principles Pilot is a collaborative approach between the ASA and companies in the digital ad supply chain to bring transparency and accountability to how participating platforms and intermediaries work with the ASA to uphold the advertising codes.

Second, the plan emphasises enhancing evidence. The taskforce will work to improve available research and build up the evidence base about in-scope harms. To that end, the IPA is developing a work stream identifying gaps in the evidence base, alongside the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s commissioned research on advertising harms.

Another working group, led by the Advertising Association, is focused on facilitating better information-sharing within the ecosystem; for example, to collectively help identify and stop scams.

Finally, the plan aims to showcase industry leadership, especially around how we protect young people. Influencers are the fastest-growing online sector, now generating over £1bn in adspend annually, with a great importance for under-18s. The action plan advocates responsible influencer marketing initiatives like Isba and the Influencer Marketing Trade Body’s Influencer Marketing Code of Conduct.

It also explores ways to increase the standards around the advertising of age-restricted products online, starting with the ASA monitoring research to provide a full picture around products that break the rules.

Media Smart mission ‘never been more pressing’

Six dedicated working groups, led by industry bodies, each address a crucial aspect of safer online advertising. In addition, the work of advertising literacy programmes such as Media Smart adds a vital consumer education dimension independent of the OAT’s work, as demonstrated in the launch of its scam advertising awareness campaign to support the government’s national campaign against fraud.

The success of the OAT relies heavily on industry involvement and on the industry actively taking a co-ordinated approach to evolving these projects. We want to make best practice de rigueur and a foundation of RFPs and commercial agreements. Best practice should be the minimum standard for doing business — in other words, we need to raise the barriers for bad actors and incentivise those who follow the rules.

The stakes

We will have a new government in July but, regardless of the election outcome, it is clear that the programme will still be part of the political agenda. Legislation is still likely to be forthcoming, but the shape and form of it is not set in stone.

So it is critical that we use this window of opportunity wisely and show that when the industry is called to act, it can do so successfully. Successful implementation of these plans is crucial; failure could lead to more onerous statutory responsibilities and regulations.

What we do in the next six to 12 months is vital to demonstrate the effectiveness of industry-led measures that already exist and the willingness of the industry to collaborate on areas of concern.

It’s not something any one of us can do alone and we all have a vested stake in the outcome. An advertising industry that showcases its commitment to responsible practices and that prioritises user safety leads to a more trusted and sustainable ecosystem. That is an outcome that everyone should welcome.

By working together, we can make sure that our industry makes the most valuable economic and social contribution possible to the UK.

Mark Lund squareMark Lund is chair of Asbof and deputy chair of Online Advertising Taskforce

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