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More advertisers set to join P&G's war on ‘murky’ online media powerbrokers

Will other advertisers follow P&G's lead and threaten to pull ad spend from the online juggernauts.

Procter & Gamble isn’t the only big-spending advertiser threatening to pull spend from online media’s powerbrokers should they fail to clean up the “murky”, “fraudulent” supply chain. There are other marketers mulling similar ultimatums who may now feel inspired to go public.

They have been inspired because P&G’s Marc Pritchard has come out and said what many couldn’t; his withering assessment of an online mediascape bedevilled by being countable instead of accountable is a demonstration of arguably advertising’s most powerful marketer flexing his muscles to get what he wants. While some will see it as a rallying cry to the industry, it is also a ruthless way of ensuring P&G squeezes the maximum value from its media at a time when the millions it spends struggle to translate into business growth.

Whether Facebook or Google bow to Pritchard’s demands remains to be seen but money talks and the signs are there that others are starting to wake up from the echo chamber of digital marketing.

Marketers are using reviews and consultants to tackle what they see as a lazy, presumptive digital media supply chain, according to sources, while one executive revealed how media agencies are going all-out to try and find holes in the duopoly of Google and Facebook and metrics would seem to be their Achilles' heels. None would go on record so soon after Pritchard’s comments, though they all agreed it could be the start of a power shift.

“The time has come to trust our marketer instincts more, know when something is too good to be true,” said Tom Denford, chief strategy officer at media consultants ID Comms. “The bottom line is that you cannot build brands solely using precision marketing techniques and racing to the bottom on media pricing. Hopefully P&G's actions will shift the wider conversation around media to one of value, strategy and investment in driving business outcomes.”

What Aviva’s brand communications and marketing director Peter Markey took from Pritchard’s “call to arms” was the importance of being vigilant. He talked up the “great relationship” he has with Facebook and was encouraged by its decision yesterday (31 January) to open up more to third party verification, arguing that “better attribution and better measurement is only going to help you [marketers] strip out those channels that are less effective and highlight the ones that are more effective”.

“It’s clear that this publicity is not bad if it’s causing both media owners and clients to raise their game,” continued Markey. “I think his [Pritchard’s] point media transparency, for me, is a call to arms to remember the need to be completely vigilant from both a media agency and client perspective in understanding the challenges we face and have the right tools to address those."

Unlike previous attacks on the accountability of digital, Pritchard backed his up with a framework, spelling out that P&G will only work with media owners who adhere to the MRC viewability standard, do not self-report and are TAG certified. Marketers worldwide will no doubt borrow from this template, which couches its ambition with the MRC’s low thresholds for the viewability of ad to be at least visible for one second for display and two seconds for video.

And there lies the rub: for all the grandiose of Pritchard’s plan the devil is in the detail. How will P&G’s own viewability demands play out in a market where its rival (Unilever) will only buy ads that are 100% in view?

Fully in-view ads sound good but it’s achieved primary by over-delivery, not always careful optimisation (it’s an unrealistic goal for most campaigns anyway – think how user behaviour on the internet works). The value of the insertion order is likely to be the same, so advertisers will be demanding more impressions for less, further commoditising digital display and thus reducing its effectiveness while publishers frustrate users with more intrusive formats in order to maintain yields.

It’s a perfect example of marketers sometimes forgetting to apply lessons past learnt to new situations. Should other advertisers echo P&G’s viewability demands or push their own benchmarks closer toward Unilever’s own, it could commoditise the market, bringing it right back to the arbitraged mess it is now.

“What does transparency actually mean?,” mused James Bourner, global head of display at digital agency Jellyfish.

“A lot of people will say it’s just knowing where you’re serving your ads, while some people will say it’s knowing what you pay for them or knowing the steps in the value chain. Others will say it's knowing how my campaign is being delivered, ie what targeting is being done or what levers are being pulled. I believe that if we’re going to achieve true transparency and make the industry sustainable then we need to be transparent in all those things; it needs to be cost; it needs to be placements; and it needs to be how a campaign is activated. All to a degree that will make the industry sustainable.”

For all the intricacy P&G’s partners will need unravel in order to wring value from the advertiser’s budgets, agencies will appreciate the clarity its viewability standards now offer, said Nigel Gwilliam, the IPA’s digital consultant.

“It’s one thing to say I know what viewability looks like but it’s another to actually track that on your campaigns accurately. Different vendors get different results.

"The MRC accreditation that Pritchard highlights doesn't fully address reporting discrepancies between vendors. Unfortunately, Digital suffers from being more easily countable than accountable in the sense you can count so many things so many different ways you risk not seeing the wood for the trees."

No matter what standards are agreed upon, the critical element is transparency – buyers must trust sellers in being transparent in reporting deliverables. The ability to consistently measure across channels incorporating independently verified data from both the buy and sell sides is important to reduce discrepancies.

“Globally, half of digital ads are never in view, and up to 12% of targeted consumers are not human, which is why initiatives driven by brands to improve media quality are so critical,” said Nick Morley, managing director for EMEA at Integral Ad Science. “We look forward to working with P&G and others in setting precedence and defining what’s acceptable for advertisers, and applaud them for taking this much-needed step forward.”

If 2016 was the start of brands realising they need to put pressure on the likes of Google and Facebook in order to get them to weed out digital’s problems, then 2017 will see them address it.

"We are already seeing buyers calling for greater transparency and insight into walled gardens like Facebook and Google,” said Lauren Fisher, senior analyst at eMarketer.

Brands such as RBS, L’Oreal, Nissan and Heineken all spoke to The Drum at separate points last year about how they plan to convince the online media owners to guarantee quality. Just as Pritchard admitted that the industry hasn’t done enough to untangle that media supply chain, Heineken’s senior director of global digital and marketing development Ian Wilson told The Drum last year that it is working with its media agency Publicis Media to guarantee in-app inventory with Facebook and YouTube “because you should be guaranteed quality”.

Players like Facebook and Google are starting to respond to some of these demands; earlier this week Facebook expanded its third-party relationships with Nielsen and Comscore, while last week Google revealed it took down 1.7 billion bad ads in 2016 in its ongoing fight against fraudsters. However the world’s largest social network responds to imminent pressure, it is unlikely to fully topple its walled garden as its chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg seemed to suggest on the company’s quarterly earnings call yesterday (1 February).

“There's a lot of conversations on what we measure…We think the answer to all of this is to remember that what really matters is going all the way through from the ad itself to the sale, whether that sale is online or offline,” she said. “And we are working hard to work on the data in a privacy protected way to be able to do that. And we're making progress across verticals, across our large customers.”

This shift has been building since the ANA’s controversial report into how media is traded last summer, followed by revelations of Facebook’s measurement errors months later. While advertisers have conducted audits and scrutinised their own strategies in recent months, P&G’s Pritchard is the first marketer to openly threaten to pull ad spend should media owners refuse to get better at proving the value of their inventory.

Between them, Google and Facebook will account for nearly half (46.4%) of all online media traded in 2017, according to emarketer. Neither will want that growth to slow with the likes of Snapchat and Verizon poised to make a bigger play for advertising budgets, meaning they may need to twist rather than stick to their (mostly) closed stance on measurement.

Additional reporting by Rebecca Stewart.

Seb Joseph

Hi, I'm the news editor at The Drum. Give me a shout if you have any questions about our news coverage or would like to pitch in a story.

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