Clarity’s Kara Silverman sat down with Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin, co-Founders of Check My Ads, a revolutionary advertising consultancy service that enables brands to set the terms of where they should and should not be advertised on the web.
In part one of this interview, Nandini and Claire take us through how they began their company, starting from roots as a humble newsletter that grew to a campaign of hundreds of thousands, and how they engage with their clients. Part two will catch us up on what they’re doing now — that is, driving large-scale and industry-wide impacts to branding, reputation management, and advertising online.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
KARA SILVERMAN: Can you tell me a little bit about both of your backgrounds?
NANDINI JAMMI: I was working as a tech marketer for my whole career and fell into ad tech; I went to visit Breitbart in November 2016 after the elections and saw that the website was covered in ads from some of the biggest brands in the world. My instincts said that A. marketers were not aware of this, and B. that they should be. So my reaction was, if we all go in and block this website from our media, which I know we can do — then the website won’t make money anymore. And it was kind of a pie in the sky crazy idea, but it ended up being this very simple concept of taking a screenshot and tagging the company or the brand to let them know that this was happening.
So educating brands about where their money was being spent ended up being a very effective way to communicate to them, and we were able to grow this campaign ‘Sleeping Giants’ from just a few people to a campaign of over 300,000 people helping us take these screenshots every day and really scale this concept. After working on this campaign for several years for free, because it was a volunteer thing that I was doing along with my full time job as a growth marketer, I eventually went freelance so that I could continue working on it with a more flexible schedule.
Claire and I met in the spring of 2019 — we were Twitter mutuals because we both worked in this very small niche of B2B tech marketing, so she DM’d me to meet up once when I was coming to Vancouver. We instantly hit it off when we met because we were both thinking about the same problems. I remember asking Claire, “Am I going to be running Sleeping Giants forever? When is it going to be over?”, as in, if Sleeping Giants has been so effective, then why do we still need to operate? And Claire had been thinking about the same issues.
CLAIRE ATKIN: I had been thinking about disinformation from a governance point of view. I had gone to Europe to study international election observation and media observation, to understand election disinformation. When Nandini and I met, we both realized we didn't understand ad tech as well as we thought we needed to, so we started to dig into it. We understood three things right off the bat: First, that ad tech is systematically funding hate speech and disinformation; second, that this is bad for communities but it's also bad for brands; and third, that ad tech’s response to this problem had completely missed the mark. It had ended up defunding news sources instead of helping brands avoid actual publishers of disinformation. We knew that there was a problem, we knew that marketers weren't being given the full story on their ad spend, and we wanted to help them fix it — so that's what we do with Check My Ads.
KS: How did you guys decide to start a business and take the leap from either doing this kind of ad hoc, or volunteering, or more informally, to “Okay, we're going to make this our career and not just a passion”?
CA: I think we got to that point because we realized that brands didn’t know where to turn for help. Marketers don't want to be in these places, but ad tech has not been designed for marketing. It was designed for ad tech. Once we kind of opened the door to ad tech for ourselves, we realized that there was a gulf between the two industries. And I think that's something that a lot of outsiders don't realize. So we decided that we would help bridge that gap, so that marketers would be more empowered to put their ads where they think they should be, and to make sure their ads do not go where they should not be. We run brand safety trainings for teams that we work with, whether that’s comms teams, brand teams, or marketing teams, and we help them develop brand safety guidelines to help them communicate down the media supply chain in terms of what is and is not appropriate use of their ad spend.
KS: How do you think about this from a business point of view? How do you think about monetizing this, and making enough money to be able to support yourself while you're doing this? I think something that I found in my own life as an entrepreneur, when I was doing it, is that getting people to pay you and figuring out how to charge for something can be very hard, especially when you're doing something that doesn't have a track record of being paid for in this way. How are you approaching that?
CA: We work with Fortune 500 and global brands. The clients that we have are typically dealing with two different things. First is that they have really big ad budgets, so it's almost guaranteed that they're going to be on disinformation sites. We haven't had a client not be on disinformation sites yet. The second thing that they're concerned about is their reputation.
When we first started Check My Ads, we thought that people would want to literally check their ads to see if there was hate speech and disinformation, but as it turns out, everyone is inadvertently funding these sites. What they really need is help navigating the conversation internally. So that's why we run these brand safety trainings, which have gone really well; we've realized that this is a lot more valuable than we originally thought. So, yeah, we're doing well, we’re accepting clients but we’re booked out for the next few months at this point, which is great.
KS: What does it look like when someone is done working with you? What are the changes that they implement, how do they make sure that this doesn't happen again? Do they stay a customer for life, do they have checkups?
NJ: Right now we're offering a series of brand safety trainings and playbooks. We're going to continue expanding those trainings and playbooks. We've really just gotten started, but I see us expanding into training employees to act as brand stewards across the company.
CA: Half of what we are grappling with is the fact that placements are out of control; ads are out of control. The second thing that we're challenged with is that this is a communications exercise, and this is why we work with comms teams so much. Brand safety crises can be understood on two sides -— the corporate side and on the activist side. Nandini understands both sides because of her work. So we are in a unique position to talk about these issues and offer a playbook for how to respond to brand safety crises, how to constantly evolve your brand, including answerability. This is something that brands are currently paying us for and it's going really well. We've helped brands incorporate our Answerability framework into their brand safety operations.That's been really powerful for them.
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