The effectiveness of digital advertising is increasingly being called into question as marketers’ concerns over transparency, measurement, ad fraud and viewability compound.
The debate ramped up when Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at the world’s largest advertiser Procter & Gamble, made a speech earlier this year on the subject, heralding a new era in digital advertising.
In February, an investigation by The Times resulted in a headline stating “big brands fund terror” following revelations that branded content had appeared beside a pro-ISIS video on YouTube, a result of programmatic advertising gone awry.
Advertising trade body, ISBA opened its annual conference yesterday (9 March) with director general Phil Smith calling on delegates to “not lose sight of the bigger picture; we are faced with a consumer that is increasingly disenchanted with advertising, who now think less of advertisers than of bankers”.
He said: “We are faced with a growing public awareness that these amazing technologies are incredibly powerful in the hands of bad and manipulative people.
“What we do and what we are seen to do in the next 12 months will matter. The digital industry has reached the age of responsibility and it needs to behave accordingly,” he added.
The targeting fallacy
In a panel debate at the conference, Richard Huntington, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, and Hamish Nicklin, chief revenue officer at The Guardian, joined Google’s managing director for UK and Ireland, Ronan Harris, in an heated discussion about the effect of these issues on brands, publishers and agencies.
Huntington said the “whole mess” surrounding digital advertising is “slightly driven by a targeting fallacy”, which he described as the idea that advertising works principally through accurate targeting of individuals who are ready, willing and able to purchase your product.
This in turn results in the industry ignoring context in favour of targeting. The agency chairman said “we have completely forgotten the power of context”, adding he is “very upset that most clients don’t seem to know or care where their communications take place any longer”.
He added: “News brands, and a lot of traditional media, provide this brilliant context for communication we no longer care about. We believe quality of media is simply the quality of the pipe and if it accurately reaches somebody we predicted might be interested in us rather than the whole context around a message and a brand.”
Harris at Google disagreed. He doesn’t think advertisers have given up on caring about context, claiming the people he speaks to are “quite focused on it”. But he also admitted that “some people are only focused on audience” and said the role Google plays in that is making sure its platforms provide that choice.
He said: “Whether it’s on a digital media or an offline media, on a TV screen or mobile phone, it’s about understanding the consumer. We can’t force the way in which we want to do business on the consumer, but understand and listen.”
He added: “As new formats and new types of media appear, what we have got to do as business owners, advertisers and marketers, [is] understand the consumer and figure out the right way to deliver our brand and our message.”
However, Nicklin at The Guardian showed concern about the shift towards and the desire to buy programmatically, “as if everything that people are trying to do is around direct response” and “the only thing that really seems to matter is how cheaply you can buy and get your message in front of the audience”.
He said at the moment that approach is being applied “to just about every form of communication” it tries to do and that questions around demonstrating the publisher’s quality and context “never happen”.
Nicklin said: “The machines never ask us [about] the environment in which we are placing this ad. It’s purely, ‘have you got this data about the individual and how cheaply can you give it to me’, regardless of whether or not that’s a direct response campaign or a branded campaign.”
He added: “That’s what happens every single day on the internet, this completely divorces context from audience.”
Trying to make junk inventory work
Huntington made further attacks on digital advertising around ad placement and seeking consent to target consumers online.
He said agencies spend “too much time trying to make junk inventory that we are served up by media agencies work because we have to communicate without any sound, or we have to communicate the brand in the first three seconds because everyone fucking hates pre-roll”.
At the moment he said too much time and money is wasted on “optimising platforms that aren’t fit for purpose yet” and advised the audience of a fundamental starting point exploring “whether people have given their consent” to being targeted and advertised to on several platforms, including YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.
When asked by Huntington why YouTube is allowing ads to run in the middle of videos, Harris replied by saying “the topic of quality of ads is important”.
He added: “One of the things we are trying to lead is a global conversation about what good ads look like [before looking to] sign up all of the key players. And the good players will want to sign up.”
Harris said the media giant is “constantly looking at the interaction of our consumers with different formats on our platforms” and cited the move to phase out 30-second pre-roll advertising by the end of the year because it “was a bad user experience”. He added: “What constitutes a bad user experience and what consumers respond to will continuously evolve.”