The digital advertising charge sheet:
1. Advertising can't be seen, at least not by humans.
2. A huge amount of impressions are fraudulent
3. Many actual impressions occur in inventory of low quality or unacceptable, even illegal context.
4. Too much brand money invested in digital advertising is absorbed by middlemen considered not to be adding real value.
The defendants in the case include publishers with low viewability standards; the platforms that fail to protect the public, brands and corporate reputations; and the programmatic buying ecosystem, the players in which are alleged to be more focused on extracting their share of the money that passes between advertisers and publishers rather than delivering valuable business outcomes for either.
The plaintiffs in the case are the public that needs and deserves to be protected; the advertiser who must safeguard hard-won brand reputations and ensure the effectiveness of the advertising investments; and the publishers that no longer control the money flows in the market as a result of the alleged false or inflated claims concerning the bad actions of the defendants.
There's little value in listing the counsel for the defense or the prosecution because to name some would taint all and merely prolong the squabble. It would be equally futile to suggest that there is any chance of a unanimous and unambiguous verdict being returned as virtually all participants can be said to be conflicted in their motives. Such is the state of an industry that has been turned upside down by landslide changes in technologies, consumer behaviors, and a massive wave of disruption to legacy players.
It is more rational to simply accept that we are in an imperfect world with imperfect players, all striving to change. It’s nigh impossible to prescribe binary choices and behaviors that any two or more contracting parties can agree on, but perhaps we can all agree on this:
1. Fraud is bad. Publishers must reduce it close to total elimination. Advertisers and buyers should use every tool at their disposal to remove incentives to fraudsters. At Group M, following years of hard work with third party verification vendors, fraudulent impressions have been reduced to an estimated maximum of 3%. Keeping in mind that the fraudsters and their techniques are ever mutable, this is arguably an outstanding outcome.
2. Content quality is almost always in the eye of the beholder, but advertisers have an ultimate right to know where their ads are appearing and to be their own arbiters of taste. Voting with their wallets remains their privilege. Publishers must take responsibility for what is published and to enforce their user and publisher agreements. They should distinguish with vigor between that content that can be freely monetized and that which is likely to offend, or to fund further offense or criminality.
3. Viewability is a commercial issue. It is extremely important to brands for whom awareness and other brand measures are of the highest value - and for which they pay. It is less important to advertisers that only pay for outcomes. Buyers and sellers have a choice as to how they organise and use inventory. The unintended consequence of viewability is bad user experience. Advertisers and publishers should be wary of biting the hand that feeds them.
4. Programmatic is nothing more than a mechanism for the automated connection of demand and supply, and of advertisers to consumers using data to increase relevance – and speed to capture opportunity. The people, the data and the technology behind the systems do involve real costs which need to be understood. In some markets like Asia, well-run programmatic leads advertisers to safer environments than direct buys because of the ability to tag, measure and optimise.
Blaming programmatic for wastage is like blaming cars for accidents; it’s the skills of the operators that must be questioned.
Without question, there are challenges to be resolved in digital advertising and programmatic execution. However, hyperbole and unfairly simple definitions of "middlemen" are not helpful to the whole industry that is finding its way through all of this change.
Programmatic is flawed if it uses bad data, accesses bad inventory or is deployed without foresight and without rules that keep brands and consumers safe. But programmatic technologies are doing far more good than bad; without it, brands simply cannot find their target audiences. This is true today and will be even truer tomorrow, and history shows that industries cannot resist automation.
Programmatic’s success or failure should be measured by the buyer on the value received (the price of reach or outcome) compared to other channels and by the seller on yield compared to other sales channels.
Buyers, sellers and intermediaries are always free to negotiate terms and controls – and they do on everything from fees to disclosure. That creates a contract and contractual compliance is everything.
Everyone has the right to look for past and current wrongs; everyone has the responsibility for ensuring future rights. We are entitled to choose our partners but obliged to protect ourselves, our brands, our customers and the public at large. But today, we must recognise that our business has forever changed and that programmatic capabilities are the only way we will continue to navigate the complexity.
The most reasonable call to action to all players is to collaborate around improvements and standards.
Rob Norman is global chief digital officer at Group M.