Digital media is a buyer’s market, but that doesn’t make it a good deal

Digital media fragmentation has driven down the price of online ads but at a cost to creativity and brand fame, says Bob Wootton, principal of Deconstruction Consulting and former ISBA director.

It is a trusim to say that media has changed over my time. In fact, it has exploded and there’s now a daunting superabundance of choice for marketers.

With choice comes competition, which classical theory suggests should be good for prices. This is partly true – for example the real price of TV airtime (and therefore, some argue, other media) has not risen significantly since the nineties.

However, the increase in choice has not been matched by a commensurate increase in ways of reaching a mass audience. Rather, audiences have fragmented – shattered, even – so there are now many more ways of reaching small numbers of people.

This is good news for those wanting to target tightly, especially as many of these online media vehicles have back channels that yield data.

Unfortunately, they’ve proved not to be as reliable or accountable as first claimed. There are watch-outs.

Ad fraud and viewability

First, it transpired that less than half of online ads could actually be viewed by humans. Since we haven’t yet figured out how to sell stuff without persuading humans to buy it, this is a fundamental shortcoming.

(That said, some have found their kids using Amazon’s voice-activated digital ‘assistant’, Alexa, to run up serious online shopping bills, which made the US TV news. Those reports were then interpreted by numerous Alexas as an instruction to place yet further orders online, so maybe we can bypass humans after all. Only joking.)

Next, it emerged that there’s a brisk global trade in fraudulent ad impressions, usually generated by surreptitiously downloaded malware. This is serious – in the organised crime league, online fraud is now second only to drugs, with human trafficking coming in third.

READ MORE: P&G issues call to arms to ad industry over ‘antiquated’ media buying

Publishers were slow to step on this. At least one major publisher of record has investigated by buying its own inventory through online exchanges, only to find most if it was fraudulent.

Even if your online ads are not fraudulent and are viewable by real people, over a quarter of those real people are blocking them anyway.

A senior Times journalist was once quite adamant when interviewing me that it was advertisers’ job to sort out fraud, to which I responded: “If you, who create and sell the stuff, can’t tell it’s fake, how on earth can your customers?”

The growth of ad blocking

Meanwhile, smart tech developers have seized on the perceived consumer disaffection with intrusive and irritating online ads, especially on their mobiles where the ads squander peoples’ data allowances and waste precious battery life. Thus the birth and spread of ad blockers.

So even if online ads are non-fraudulent and viewable by real people, over a quarter of those people – and more of the millennial audience that so many have convinced themselves is the only one to go for – are blocking them anyway.

Finally, the value chain between advertiser and consumer is much more complex online, with many more parties taking a dip as the money passes through. The World Federation of Advertisers has produced this excellent illustrative chart which shows the proportion of monies that actually end up as ‘working media’. The answer is: not much.

Digital media spend chart
Estimated proportion of ad spend going to ‘working media’ (Source: WFA Compendium of Ad Fraud Knowledge, 2014)

Not that this has slowed marketers pouring money into these new digital media channels. With infinitely elastic supply, the pricing dynamics are attractive and it’s a buyer’s market. Online has been the fastest growing medium for years and is now set to be the biggest by revenue.

In fairness, this headlong growth has finally found focus. Most agree that any growth in online is now going to Google and Facebook and that all other players are at a standstill or in decline. Both of these companies, grown massive on ad revenues, have taken more steps than many others to defray malign influences. And they have the scale to reassure their clients.

Put access before price

So much for the promised miracle of micro-targeting. This is not to say that many good businesses, and indeed many new businesses, haven’t benefited from this new fragmented world. It’s just not the universal panacea its owners would have had us believe.

Lately a conversation has started around the diminishing effect of advertising and the erosion of real creativity. And a number of major advertisers have begun to question their online spend, citing diminishing salience, returns and transparency.

Mass brands are rediscovering the value of fame, talkability, the watercooler moment, shared viewing and the need to reach scale audiences.

Online can offer scale too but it’s fragmented, which drives back to old ‘classic’ media, the best and biggest of which provide all these things but are scarce.

A super-prime peak spot on ITV, a landmark billboard, even an inside cover spread in The Times (God, how we used to fight just to be able to do that), all remain unique.

Which is why this corner of the media has always to a greater or lesser extent been a seller’s market. Where agency – and even advertiser – skills focus on access before price. This is sometimes difficult for the procurement people who hold the purse strings to grasp, especially in contrast to online.

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