A Call to Arms For the Digital Advertising Industry

Stuart Elmes

It’s not been a great year so far for the online advertising industry. 

At the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in January, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard called for technology companies to change how they operate and criticised the opaque billing practices of ad agencies. He blamed the sector for a lack of growth in the consumer goods industry and advised that P&G would no longer pay for any digital ads, tech, or agency services that didn't meet its standards.

Then a host of brands began cutting their UK ad spending with Google after learning that their ads had been running alongside unsavoury content such as videos by terrorist sympathisers. Sadly it looks like these companies may have been unwittingly funding terrorists and pornographers.

Its clear there’s need for change. As Marc Pritchard eloquently put it, “brands serve ads to consumers through a non-transparent media supply chain with spotty compliance to common standards, unreliable measurements, hidden rebates, and new inventions like bots driving fraud.”

A Call to Arms For the Digital Advertising Industry

Pritchard’s speech was a call to arms, not only to the platforms selling online advertising space, but to the people pulling the strings in every corner of the online advertising industry, including brands themselves.

Exactly what impact P&Gs position, this speech, and the recent links between online advertising, pornography, and terrorism will have on the online advertising industry is a bit unclear at this stage. What is clear is that these developments most likely represent merely the opening salvo in a significant battle to bring parity and transparency to an industry which has been severely lacking in both since its earliest days.

Part of the challenge is that we currently have a highly fragmented, dysfunctional ecosystem. The now infamous analysis of the ad tech world by investment bank LUMA Partners tells a dizzying picture of enormous complexity.

Couple this with another challenge complicating the issue: That the online advertising industry as it currently stands is effectively a duopoly – with the sector being increasingly dominated by Facebook and Google, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration across the board.


What’s wrong with a duopoly?

The slow creep of Facebook and Go into every aspect of online activity began in earnest some time ago, and shows no signs of stopping. Brands wishing to advertise online have little choice but to approach these juggernauts, hat in hand, and accept whatever terms they present.

The issue is that this enormous amount on digital power seems to have brought little to no accountability along with it.

When Google ups prices for key Adwords as much as 1000%, or when Facebook pulls the organic reach rug out from under every company which invested time and effort into building an audience on its platform, few complain, and even fewer listen.

Both Facebook and google know that they’ve got brands over a barrel. If you won’t do business with them, who can you reach?

This leaves the internet’s biggest platforms in the unique historical position of being able to name their prices without really needing to justify those prices to anyone. In the clamour to pick up online market share, big budgets in hand, brands have paid the premiums demanded gladly.

But that may be about to change.

What can be done?

If huge consumer goods brands like P&G refuse to participate, demand data clarity to justify their online advertising spend, insist on some form of control as to where/how their ads are presented, and stick to their guns, a seismic shift in the way the online advertising industry operates could well be in the works.

Such brands could strike a blow against the internet’s behemoths that will have a trickle down effect for every brand and company advertising online and the entire industry itself.

It behooves the internet’s biggest platforms to create an environment for brands and their online ads to flourish.

Everybody wins, as long as it all works for the consumer as well.


What then?

Lost in all this is the one point that no-one is really discussing: When such advertising does work, what happens post-click?

Brands & agencies are still obsessing over eyeballs and “impressions”, and missing what should be the most important bit – how you treat people who actually are engaging with your online ads. It is easy enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater and label the sum total of current efforts on such platforms “crappy advertising” as Pritchard did, but shouldn’t brands accept at least some responsibility for the sign-off role they play in this process? After all, agencies are indeed executing briefs set by the brands themselves, in this Proctor and Gamble is no different.

The vast majority of CPG / FMCG advertising currently online still provides a poor customer experience, with either generic landing pages that don’t match the ad’s calls to action, overly aggressive targeting, or dumping customers straight onto a retailer which over 50% of them don’t shop with.

How about a post-click experience that actually solves a real problem for somebody? How about instead of worrying about viewability, brands and agencies take a step back and create something worthy of someones time? How about you make your brand a solution to a user’s problem, rather than just more noise in their busy digital day?

It’s about time for that too.