MarTech Interview with Vanessa Otero, Founder and CEO at Ad Fontes Media

It is crucial for marketers and advertisers to pay attention to elements like ad fraud and enhanced brand safety in a digital-first marketing world. Vanessa Otero, Founder and CEO, Ad Fontes Media dives into top practices and tips in this chat.


Tell us a little about yourself Vanessa…we’d love to hear about your typical day at work and of course, more about Ad Fontes Media?

I’m the Founder and CEO of Ad Fontes Media, which accidentally grew from a small passion project—an image now known as the Media Bias Chart. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, I had grown alarmed at how people on social media would argue about politics, often throwing links to articles from “news sources” that were really biased and/or low in credibility. Predictably, no one from either side would be convinced by anyone else’s article links. I started thinking about my own news consumption habits, and how most people get their news from social media and just a handful of outlets. As a result, they get their news either due to algorithm or pure habit. Many people don’t realize that other people read and watch completely different things than they do, and those different media outlets reinforce different beliefs and present different facts. 

I thought it would be useful to draw an image illustrating the concepts that some news sources are better and worse (on a vertical axis) and more left and right biased (on a horizontal axis). At the time I was a practicing patent attorney, and part of my profession was to explain complex subjects in both words and pictures, so it just made sense to draw a chart.  I shared it on social media, and it went wildly viral—way beyond anything I expected. 

People started asking me for the underlying data and methodology, and of course, for more and more news sources. I was stunned that there wasn’t anything out there that consistently measured news sources for reliability and bias, and quickly realized there was a need for this kind of data for anyone regularly dealing with the news. These days, that is all of us—news consumers, educators, and especially brands. I founded Ad Fontes (which means “to the source” in Latin) to address that need.

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Today, Ad Fontes Media is a leading provider of data on news (and “news-like”) content reliability and bias. We have over 40 analysts with political views right, left, and center who analyze and rate content according to our rigorous methodology. They analyze written articles, podcasts, and TV news content in live, politically balanced analyst shifts on Zoom.

I left my law practice last year to grow the company. Now I spend my days diving into the good, bad, and ugly of the news landscape with my team of analysts and trainers, which is fun because we’re always up on trends in the media. It can also be a bit maddening because we get intimately familiar with some of the most polarizing junk news out there, and we see the divisive effects it has on society on seemingly every issue.

But my days are also inspiring because I spend them connecting with the best people—the ones committed to making concrete improvements in the news landscape. That includes not just my analysts and team, but also the regular citizens taking our seminars, the librarians teaching media literacy in their communities and the brand leaders taking their responsibilities in the media seriously.

Tell us about the Ad Apex solution suite and how it’s benefiting advertisers / marketers?

The brand leaders I mentioned are increasingly aware of how their ad dollars directly impact the news landscape. Until recently, most of the conversation was about a simpler concept of “brand safety” in the news—about not being associated with offensive or brand-inappropriate content. 

But today’s leaders in this conversation are more aware and more proactive about their roles. They know their customers expect them to lead on issues of social importance. That means more than just making public statements about movements and policies they support. It means taking real action. 

When it comes to news, brands have a unique role: their ad dollars make a positive impact on society by funding good journalism, and a negative impact on society by funding misinformation and extreme polarizing content. However, the existing tools for trying to mitigate that are blunt force, like keyword blocking. While keyword blocking might be effective for old-school brand safety concerns, it isn’t very good for telling the difference between journalism and misinformation, or between mere opinion and extremist content.

Our Ad Apex solution is designed to address exactly that problem. We have thousands of data points on websites and podcasts that allow advertisers to quickly draw lines between acceptable and unacceptable content according to their brand values. Ad Apex lets marketers apply this data to their direct and programmatic media buys and is easy to integrate with platforms.

In what ways are you seeing marketers address challenges related to ad fraud today and what are some best practices you’d like to share to help optimize this further?

I’m seeing savvy marketers try to get ahead of embarrassing incidents. At this point, everyone is familiar with the scenario where a news/opinion personality on some show says something completely outrageous and hurtful, and the brands advertising on that show get dragged all over social media and become the subject of boycotts. Smart marketers don’t need that to happen more than once (or have it happen at all) to take proactive steps to avoid it.

These marketers do a few things, which I think are best practices for others navigating misinformation and extreme polarizing content.

How according to you should global marketers / global advertisers be paying more attention to media bias issues?

Get a sense of what your most important stakeholders—your customers and employees—expect from your brand when it comes to what content your ads support. A simple survey may reveal that your stakeholders find your media planning is inconsistent with your brand’s stated values (e.g., inclusion, equality, freedom of expression, etc.) 

Then, make a plan for handling incident backlash. So many marketers are reactive and inconsistent in embarrassing incident scenarios. The reaction often results in temporary pulling of ads and then quietly returning to the same publisher a few months later, which is both disingenuous and fails to solve the original problem.

Seek out resources that help you navigate misinformation and polarizing content and groups that are committed to solving media ecosystem problems. I’m part of a great new group called the Media Roundtable that does exactly that, and there are great other industry initiatives like the Global Alliance for Responsibility and IAB’s News Saves Lives.

Stay on top of the news and take action -> You might become aware of some misinformation or extremism scandal on a particular show or website. Maybe you see it on social media, or maybe a customer or employee points it out to you. You can always check with your agency or programmatic platform and block that particular outlet to save you potential headaches going forward.

Global marketers and advertisers should pay close attention to the same dynamics of media polarization and misinformation around the world. These dynamics have caused all kinds of problems in the United States, such as distrust in institutions, the destabilization of democracy, the rise of both social unrest and authoritarianism, public confusion about health information and online anger turning into real-world violence. 

These dynamics have been replicated around the world, especially in newer democracies, with similar and sometimes worse consequences. Places like Brazil, the Philippines and many European countries are dealing with the fallout from misinformation and polarization in media. 

A polluted information landscape results in democratic instability. And ultimately, democratic instability results in economic instability, which limits opportunities for global brands to grow. Therefore, global marketers should see it as an economic imperative to direct their ad dollars to good journalism in any market they enter.

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Take us through some of Ad Fontes Media upcoming initiatives?

At Ad Fontes Media we are continuing to grow our data set to cover the vast web and podcast landscape, and we have a few initiatives planned in the coming months. 

First, we will be releasing regular monthly charts showing the top and bottom rated podcasts and any other notable shifts in that podcast landscape.

Second, we’ve been busy analyzing hundreds of TV news episodes across dozens of networks, which will be included in our next Ad Apex offering. These scores will allow advertisers in the growing CTV and OTT market to make better decisions about the TV news content they sponsor.

Beyond the marketing world, though, we’re heavily committed to improving the news landscape in other ways, like in influencing policy around social media misinformation and media literacy education in schools. We’ll have some announcements regarding publications and partnerships about those topics soon

A few takeaways for marketing / advertising leaders in 2021: top factors they should keep in mind as they plan for the rest of the year?

The noise about brands and the news content they support is not going away. It is only going to get louder. It’s not just about some online activists occasionally pestering brands. It’s about the expectations of a new generation of consumers demanding that brands step up.

Misinformation and extreme polarizing content isn’t going to go away on its own either. With increasingly fragmented audiences, like in podcasts and CTV/OTT, content can get even more extreme and simultaneously difficult to monitor. 

But it won’t suffice for brands to shrug their shoulders and blindly throw their ad dollars at this content anyway. Last year’s polarizing misinformation was about COVID, race and election fraud. We have yet to reckon, as a society, how much that misinformation cost us in terms of sickness, death and violence. Or how fragile it rendered our democracy. 

This year’s polarizing misinformation will be something else, like vaccine misinformation, but it could have consequences just as devastating. If we want more of the good news content to exist and less of the bad, brands have to take action to make that happen.

Ad Fontes Media

Ad Fontes Media is the media bias intelligence leader and producer of The Media Bias Chart® which rates media sources in terms of political bias and reliability. The organization was founded by patent attorney Vanessa Otero with the goal of combating political polarization. In 2021, Ad Fontes Media launched its flagship Ad ApexTM solutions suite, a family of integrated media bias solutions. Ad ApexTM allows Ad Fontes Media’s app, brand, media and media technology partners to access its comprehensive news source ratings so they can use them in media planning, in support of their brand purpose and values.

 Vanessa is the Founder and CEO of Ad Fontes Media, a leading news rating company. She is also the original creator of the Media Bias Chart®, the viral image that prompted many lively discussions around the internet about where people get their news She founded Ad Fontes Media in 2018 to fulfill the need revealed by the popularity of the Chart—the need for an easy-to-understand, reliable news rating system. Vanessa is a native of San Diego, California and currently resides in Westminster, CO. She has a B.A. in English from UCLA, a J.D. from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and is licensed patent attorney. As the founder of Ad Fontes Media, she seeks to help all stakeholders in good news media do their part to improve our information ecosystem. 

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