Bob Wootton: Complexity is no excuse for ignoring the failings of online media

Marketers are aware of persistent issues such as viewability and ad fraud in online media, yet they continue to pump money into these channels without safeguards in the belief they have no other option – they do.

Online digital mediaI first started considering the landslide wonderfulness of online media channels in the light of revelations about the (non-)viewability of ads back in 2011.

Since then, concerns over how many online ads can actually be seen have been joined by greater concerns over whether users are blocking ads altogether; the safety of the environments in which they might appear; and whether promised audiences are inflated or even exist.

Fortunately, either new dynamic balances have been reached (eg consumer adoption of ad blockers has stabilised) or new tools have been developed to help advertisers quantify and – if they choose – address some of these concerns.

READ MORE: Bob Wootton: How brands lost confidence in media buying

But over this entire time, a bigger question has emerged. Why do advertisers take so little notice of where their money is or isn’t going and continue to place good money after bad?

Marketers abdicating responsibility

I canvassed some marketer chums to sense-check my thoughts. I didn’t start out intending to attack advertisers but every line of enquiry I make points me in that direction.

For example, despite mounting criticism and evidence, advertisers are still pumping money into Facebook. Even, paradoxically, those who are finally taking more apparently ‘principled’ stands on industry platforms.

Ad spend growth for all channels except online is at best modest, with some major media posting slowdowns or even declines. Yet online is still well into double-digit growth despite the lengthening list of tarnishes that attach to both the whole medium and the specific channels which comprise most of its revenue and all of its growth.

The possible explanations are several, if not pretty.

It could be ignorance – but if you’re spending either significant sums, or at least significant proportions of your business’s turnover or marketing budget, including personnel, on these channels, that’s simply no excuse.

Don’t be distracted by arguments about ‘complexity’. Not only are the stakes too high, but as we all know, most things are as complex as someone wants to make them.

Worse are the ‘life’s too short’ or ‘I’m too busy’ arguments. However complex the media and tech may present themselves as being (and why is that anyway?), your company’s owners wouldn’t tolerate it were they to become aware. Maybe they should be.

But what’s an intermediate-level marketer of the sort typically tasked with these channels to do if their faith in digital media is challenged but their boss remains besotted, as many do?

Even raising the flag can leave a question mark on record for appraisal time. We may have full employment in the marketing sector but most would agree that continued tenure remains quite precarious. And that’s assuming you’re on staff – many are on contracts, whether interim, maternity cover… best not rock the boat, then.

To spare blushes, I will naively assume that inducements play no part even though the new channels dedicate considerable resources and sums to both implanting themselves within client organisations and entertaining.

Implanting is a great strategy – not only does it give early notice of future budgets and plans, it also offers the opportunity to influence them. You can imagine in whose favour. Beware.

Lavish entertaining is less widespread, as many companies, for example in retail, forbid its receipt. But if you’re not one of these unfortunates, I understand that one of the best routes to key events or the best tables is the sales folk of online companies.

Which leads me to the last, and mercifully most rational, objection – the belief that it is simply too costly or complicated to resolve the failures of online media. I must admit I was as guilty as the next person of rubbing along with this one for far too long until I worked out it was utter rubbish.

The practical response

There are legion reports emanating from consulting firms (PwC, IBM et al), industry audits (ebiquity, Teads et al) or advertiser trade associations (eg ISBA & WFA).

All show significant ‘shrinkage’ – meaning that significant proportions of money are disappearing in fees, for example – with figures varying between a substantial 30% and a frightening 90%.

Viewability is still hovering around the 50% mark, meaning that around half of your ads can’t be seen. This is way before discussion about whether or not they actually have been seen – a separate conversation. That’s half the money wasted there and then.

Meanwhile, ad fraud is now reckoned to be the second biggest source of revenue for organised crime globally, behind drugs and ahead of people trafficking. Everyone is funding it through careless deployment of online ad budgets. Shareholders are going to love that one, especially if you’re a PLC.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson: The story of digital media disruption has run its course

So the stakes are enormous. Yet great preventative tools exist. The very trade bodies which many marketers rightly co-fund have spent considerable effort developing and negotiating solutions with industry peers, including those who don’t have an interest in making it easy.

All are readily available. Yes, some cost money, but marketing is grounded in investing to accumulate so that should not be a problem. Why not, then, subscribe immediately to the relevant tools to address each misdemeanour?

Since you’re going to use the early findings to underpin the zero-tolerance KPIs you are going to hold your suppliers to henceforth, the return should be almost instantaneous, measurable in weeks if not days.

Don’t be distracted by arguments about ‘complexity’. Not only are the stakes too high, but as we all know, most things are as complex as someone wants to make them.

Before you know it, you’ll be in serious credit with your business and will have the choice of increased advertising effectiveness or saving the difference – or a mix of the two.

Bob Wootton was director of media and advertising at ISBA and is now principal of Deconstruction Consulting.

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