Digital is like Wild West, but only because we're pushing boundaries and improving advertising
A view from Jon Mew

Digital is like Wild West, but only because we're pushing boundaries and improving advertising

Doubters in TV and other areas of traditional media are too quick to blame advertising's problems on digital when it is the main driver of progress, Jon Mew argues.

Increasingly, I hear digital advertising likened to the wild west, a moniker synonymous with rebels, disorderly behaviour and untamed territories.

Most recently in an interview with Campaign, ITV's Kelly Williams, Channel 4's Jonathan Allan and Sky's John Litster claimed trust in advertising is on the decline because digital is "unregulated" and that it tracks and stalks users, which is just not true.

As an optimist, I view the era differently; the dawn of a new civilisation, one that led to the creation of communities, law and order, and agricultural and industrial advancements.

In fact, digital is very much like the wild west because it too leads to great things. It’s the new frontier of advertising; it pushes boundaries and goes where no other medium has gone before.

Not only that, but it improves lives, too. Digital allows you to easily connect, shop, eat, travel, bank, watch, listen, navigate, question, answer, and share anything, anytime, anywhere.

Digital is ingrained so deeply into our daily lives that people often take it for granted and forget the fact that all the services we’ve come to enjoy and depend on are funded by advertising.

Given the digital advertising market has grown steadily over the last 16 years, it’s clear that advertisers consider digital a valuable tool to reach their audiences.

And why wouldn’t they? After all, it is the best way to reach and wow people.

TV is amazing; its proven and it works. It’s the envy of digital in many ways as it has such a long history in the minds of marketers. I wish that warm history and affection existed for digital ads, but it probably never will for those that haven’t grown up with it.

There is no point in digital trying to compete with TV as that’s silly – and honestly, we don’t think it’s about point scoring –  and we’d rather focus on improving digital and making it work as well as possible.

Brand safety is a fair concern, but in actuality, only a small amount of advertising has the chance to be at risk. Search and classified, which make up roughly 70% of digital advertising, is completely safe because advertisers control the keywords, phrases and listings their brands appear against.  

Safety’s only a concern when there’s a lack of choice, which comes with indirect programmatic trading, where advertisers buy target audiences not specific sources.

The good news? This practice is quickly changing. In April 2017, we released our Media Owner Sales Techniques study, showing that programmatic direct dominates digital (49%) and grew 9% year-on-year.

This increase in control is a clear indication of advertisers’ desire to have their ads run on known, appropriate sites. The end result when all the maths is calculated is that 91% of all digital advertising is completely free from even the risk of appearing on inappropriate websites.

To say digital doesn’t work, that the ad experience is appalling and that it’s unregulated is not only daft, but false, too. Digital ads are regulated by the ASA, as is every channel.

Is the digital ad experience on print titles or TV brands horrendous? No.

And that’s even more so for the global platforms – where the investment and focus on user experience is huge –  that continuously test what works and what users do and don’t like to maximise value.

Is it appalling to offer viewers the chance to skip ads? I don’t think so – surely it’s a better experience for the advertiser and viewer.  

It’s important to note that it’s not just the big marketers that utilise, and win, with digital.

The democratization of digital is one of its greatest attributes, meaning anyone can access it and produce content – or advertising – thanks to its ease and speed of use, ability to reach the right people at the right time and low cost of entry.

Given the speed of digital adoption, growing pains were inevitable. We’ve come a long way since the first banner ads, and with that maturation comes a responsibility to fix what’s wrong.

At the IAB US Annual Leadership Summit earlier this month, Unilever's Keith Weed dominated headlines, many of which focused on the part of his speech where he promised to cut ties with platforms that "create divisions in society".

In actuality, his speech was more positive. He reaffirmed the important role that digital plays in achieving Unilever’s brand goals, but was crystal clear that when it comes to working with Google and Facebook it’s essential for marketers to "lean-in" and work collaboratively to address and fix issues rather than giving up and walking away.

On the topic of brand safety, he was straight and to the point, admitting it’s easy to point fingers but in reality, it boils down to how well media is bought.

This is very much aligned with our mission at the IAB, which is to build a sustainable future for digital advertising that works for everyone, especially people.

Like Weed, we believe the best way to prepare for the future is to work together.

Our best example of this is the IAB UK Gold Standard, made up of three initiatives designed to reduce ad fraud through the implementation of the ads.txt initiative, improve the digital advertising experience by adhering to the LEAN principles and the standards set by the Coalition for Better Advertising, and to increase brand safety by working with Jicwebs.

The Gold Standard launched in October when all 24 IAB UK board members signed a letter of commitment.

In January, registration was made public with guidelines for certification rolling out earlier this month.

To date, more than 70 members have registered to become Gold Standard certified. We’re also in conversation with agencies and advertisers to sign up too.

The unique thing about the IAB is that we can bring people together to accomplish things they couldn’t on their own.

We’ve made great strides in addressing key issues facing our industry, and by working together, I’m confident we can make even more progress.

Jon Mew is chief executive of IAB UK

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