Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Nandini Jammi, the Founder of Check My Ads Institute and Sleeping Giants, is a brand safety expert who is passionate about dismantling disinformation in the ad tech industry and using media to influence change. In this fireside chat, Nandini discusses her work in holding corporations accountable as ads are growing at an untenable scale.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Through her years of experience in protecting brands, Nandini learns how small actions can lead to a ripple effect within the corporate world, especially on the internet.
What sparked your interest in the ad tech industry?
Back in November 2016, I was working as a growth marketing manager for a small startup when the 2016 elections took place. I went to visit Breitbart the weeks after that happened just to understand what was going on in the world. The first thing I saw that slapped me in the face was the ads. I saw ads from the biggest brands in the world. My first reaction was that these guys don’t know their ads are on here. If they’re anything like me, they’re running a Google campaign and they don’t know where in the internet world their ads could possibly be ending up.
I started tweeting screenshots at these companies with their ads next to Breitbart headlines asking: Did you know your ads are funding this stuff?
I teamed up with what ended up being my partner for 2 ½ years on this project and basically, we had no plan. It was just a Twitter and Facebook account that we operated together to alert advertisers that their ads were appearing on Breitbart. It was such an easy little thing to do that people caught on and joined us. People started to take screenshots with us, we started to amplify them, and things started to move so quickly. We began maintaining an Excel spreadsheet with all the advertisers that were trying to confirm with us that they wanted nothing to do with Breitbart.
It started to turn into this crowdsourced movement. We were able to cut off 90% of Breitbart’s ad revenue within 3 months and they were expecting to make 8 million dollars that year. It was extremely effective.
Once we got that work finished, we moved on to other things. Since then, I’ve worked on campaigns related to Bill O’Reilly. We led this campaign for Bill O’Reilly’s advertisers to drop him after the sexual harassment allegations came out. We’ve lost Tucker Carlson every blue chip advertiser that he had and now he’s sponsored by dog clippers.
Since then, I’ve been on this journey of understanding what’s it going to take for us to solve this massive disinformation crisis that we’re living in. That’s how I ended up where I’m at now over the past two years. My now business partner, Claire Atkin, and I dove into the ad tech industry to understand why this problem is still occurring if advertisers definitely don’t want to be on these websites.
Why can’t the biggest brands keep their ads off of this disinformation? What we’ve learned is that ad tech companies are placing these ads against their will. After working on Sleeping Giants, Claire and I started the Check My Ads newsletter to explain what we’re learning in the ad tech industry, how it works, and how the button, tools, and relationships function in this very complex and opaque ad tech supply chain. We try to bring that information to advertisers and marketers to help them understand what they’re doing when they click on that button and when they make that certain strategic decision, and where their money is ending up on the internet.
What inspired you to launch the Check My Ads Institute?
The nonprofit watchdog we launched is formalizing the work we’ve been doing for the past few years. We’re taking our role to the next level by not just continuing the research we’ve been doing but engaging in much larger investigations that will help us to enforce the policies that many of these ad tech companies already have on disinformation. We’re here to uncover additional ties that none of us are aware of right now outside of the ad tech world.
When did you first realize the power of your actions in scaling impact?
I think that moment came for me back in 2017. Buzzfeed came out with an article confirming ties between white supremacists and Robert Mercer who is paying out and financially supporting Breitbart. I went into problem-solving mode and asked: How can we solve this?
Robert Mercer made his billions at Renaissance Technologies. I looked at all the companies and organizations that are clients of Renaissance Technologies. I zeroed in on Michigan State University as a client we could potentially pressure because their endowment was managed by Renaissance. I drew the line that Michigan State University was helping to fund Robert Mercer who is funding Breitbart. I thought it would be too much of a stretch trying to explain that to people, but we decided to try.
We started reaching out to the chairpeople of Michigan State and we emailed them one by one by name every day. I remember there was this one day when there were no more people to email. That was the day Robert Mercer stepped down all of a sudden as CEO of Renaissance Technologies. He put out a statement saying that people got it all wrong and that he’s not a bad guy or a racist. I don’t know if we did that, but I do know that it was covered in the news. Bloomberg said this group called Sleeping Giants has been going after Michigan State University. Our work was tied to him stepping down. Whether or not we had that power, that power was created in the media and it allowed us to gain more influence.
Your work serves as a last line of defense for the ad industry. Is there a way to make it good from the start? (Eg., An ad company that only supports “good brands”)
We have spent 2 years studying the adtech industry and we think it’s time to throw the whole industry out. Disinformation and brand safety are the lenses through which we do our work, but the bigger picture is that advertisers have no idea where their ads are being placed because they are placing ads at an untenable scale.
An example of this is—a few years ago, as a result of the Sleeping Giants campaign, Chase Bank checked their ads for the first time. They found they were appearing on more than 400,000 websites. Nobody needs to be on 400,000 websites, even for a global company like Chase. They experimented with a 5,000-long inclusion list. This company had been allowing Google and the other vendors to place their ads anywhere on the internet. They intentionally and manually picked out the 5,000 websites they wanted to be on. They found no change in performance, so they’ve been paying for their ads to appear on 395,000 websites.
This is the norm from what we’ve seen. Advertisers are spending their money on this promise of being able to place the right ad in front of the right person at the right time. They’re being told that they’re able to do it at lower CPM (cost per mile) rates in total. So, there is a drive to the bottom plus this drive to scale, and it has commodified the entire internet.
The ad tech industry basically created a false equivalency between the Washington Post and the disinformation side. They don’t tell the difference. This is not tenable for journalism and for us as consumers. These advertisers continue to demand more information about us because they think they need it. At the same time, they’re not getting any value. They’re being screwed out of billions of dollars.
We believe the entire ad tech industry is a house of cards. It is an incredible place for money laundering. We don’t know who owns these 350,000 websites. A lot of them are clickbait or anonymous LLCs. It is just a money launderer's dream.
In the short term, we’ve been trying to convince companies to move towards inclusion-based lists. So rather than the spray and pray, we want them to be intentional about where they place their ads. A lot of our work in our agency the past year is helping companies think about where they wanted their ads to go based on their brand values. That was successful, but if we want to move this thing at scale, we really need to poke the holes in public. We need to sunlight the whole thing.
We don’t think this ad industry is worth saving. What we need to be doing is thinking about ways to reach out to customers and consumers in a brand-new paradigm. That means new KPIs instead of click and bounce rates, like brand recall and memory. We need KPIs that ask consumers: How do you feel about our brand? Are you recommending our brand to other people? That’s going to take a real shift in our thinking and it’s going to take a lot of collaboration and cocreation from the marketing industry and consumers.
How do you decide and prioritize what companies and roles to reach out to?
I try to go for the ones with the most name recognition knowing that their brand reputation can take a hit. It’s also because many of these big companies work with big clients. They have policies in place, legal language, and legal agreements with their advertisers. They’re taking reasonable steps to vet their inventory and ensure that disinformation, falsely misleading narratives, targeted harassment, racism, and bigotry are not in their inventory. If I find them, flag them, and leave a paper trail, it allows me to get faster results. These guys are very much followers and not leaders. Once they see someone else has dropped a site, the others will follow very quickly and drop like dominos.
How can we take action on corporate accountability?
My actual paid job was as a B2B marketer and my job was to create buy-in. I was selling product management software. That’s the kind of job where you have to get multiple groups like engineers, product marketers, and managers in on the product before they can adopt it and buy it. So, I’ve always learned to think strategically about how to convince people to do things.
Part of it is building out the case for a cause or whatever you want your desired action to be from multiple angles. There’s also a lot of psychology involved in this. On one level, most companies have something to lose, which is their reputation. If they are talking about how much they love the environment and what they’re doing, and they’re putting that out on their marketing campaigns, that’s something they’re investing real money in. That’s something to potentially recruit employees, retain customers, and maintain brand sentiment. These are companies that intimately follow how you as a consumer feel about them. That’s why they engage in all these greenwashing tactics. That’s what I’m always looking to poke holes into and asking myself who has the most to lose from that.
Sometimes you want to start from the top. You want to start from social media but other times you want to think about, psychologically speaking, who is the most vulnerable and who may actually take the time to escalate an issue to their masses, their supervisors, etc. I’ve actually reached out to a marketing manager knowing that they are going to get in trouble if they don’t escalate the problem to their CMO. So, I’m always trying to work different angles, and that includes privately reaching out to these companies and building out a paper trail. For example, I use multiple tools to see if they checked the email, and that way I can build out my own narrative. I’ve been able to use that, for example, to successfully build pressure on the team at Stripe who has funded a lot of really bad guys.
As consumers spend more time on social media, what can we do in our everyday lives to support this work?
If you see ads on a bad website, tweet them at me. One of the things that I would like to do with Check My Ads Institute is to train people to do what I do and to help us record where these ads are coming from through the supply chain. That will allow us to build out a much bigger crowdsource project in the future. The tweets are noticed by companies. The tweets of one person make a difference—even privately reaching out to a company makes a difference. There are good people inside these companies, particularly the advertisers who want the pressure.
Be specific and mirror the language of these publisher policies. Say when something is misleading, false, and harmful to certain groups. That helps them build the case internally and get the results that we’re looking for. Don’t forget to be vocal, loud, and specific about what we are fighting here.
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