Transparency and brand safety – just two of the issues Facebook and Google had the chance to address to rooms full of marketers at two of the industry’s biggest events in the UK this week.
Here The Drum looks at how the duopoly’s dominance came under the spotlight once more this month at the annual conference held by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba) and the Guardian Changing Media Summit.
While Facebook and Google outlined the steps they have taken to improve their value for advertisers in the wake of ongoing concerns around over-inflation and some of ad land's top bods – including WPP and the UK government – have offered varying takes on what more the companies have to do to alleviate their concerns.
Over the past 12 months, both Google and Facebook have been under pressure to be more transparent when it comes to their programmatic ad offerings – be it opening up to third-party measurement, detailing how they are combating ad fraud or in Facebook’s case being frank on user numbers.
Steve Hatch, vice-president for Facebook in Northern Europe, admitted that Facebook had been “too slow” in providing third-party measurement across its platform portfolio, which also includes Instagram.
He said Facebook now had 24 global third-party partners in total, including the likes of Integral Ad Science and Nielsen, which let advertisers assess the effectiveness of campaigns.
Hatch conceded: “That’s a number people are often surprised by, so I think we have to do a better job of letting [advertisers] know that it’s there.”
Alluding to prior comments from Sir Martin Sorrell who had said he was fed up with Facebook and Google overseeing their own figures, Hatch pointed out that WPP-owned firm Kantar was now among its measurement partners: “So I can stand and say that Martin Sorrell is honestly marking our homework."
P&G’s top marketer Marc Pritchard acknowledged during his Isba speech that since his “wake up call” for the industry to work together to clean up the “murky at best, fraudulent at worst” digital supply chain in 2017 he had been encouraged by the attitude shown by media and tech companies.
“Facebook and Google have not only had countless conversations with us in the past, they’ve openly shared progress, and problems, with chief marketing officers in multiple industry association meetings," he said.
For YouTube’s part, Gill Whitehead, senior director, client solutions and analytics, Google UK, said that on the measurement side YouTube was working towards a measurement system comparable to TV.
“We’re working hard to deliver that ask here in the UK,” she said, "because the efficiency of marketers’ media buys are at stake.”
Despite Google and Facebook's assurances some brand marketers were less enthused than Pritchard with their progress in this area with RBS chief marketing officer and president of the World Federation of Advertisers, David Wheldon, saying the "fixes hadn’t been good enough, but were better than nothing.”
Carolyn McCall, ITV’s chief executive, meanwhile used her speaking opportunity to reference a recent Pivotal report which claimed Facebook had been overinflating the number of 16 to 24 year-olds on its platform in line with the UK national census.
Unsurprisingly, she pitched TV as a better buy for brands: "If that happened in TV, we would have been roundly attacked and condemned."
McCall also presented TV as a "safer" platform for advertisers.
She said: "British broadcasters invest £6bn in quality content each year; advertising and sponsorship in this brand safe environment generates growth, trust and profit for brands like nothing else."
From a marketing perspective, Alex Aitken, the director for UK government communications, said that the government has not resumed spend with YouTube since pulling its ads from the platform last year when publicly-funded commercials were served adjacent to pornographic and extremist content.
"As a government we cannot be on a platform that promotes hate, or division," said the marketer, who is currently overseeing a media review for his division which spends £300m on ads a year.
Aitken added: "I was told [by agencies] that this would reduce our marketing impact and incur greater cost, and I said ‘we must do it anyway because it is the right thing to do’.
"What happened was the opposite in that the majority of campaigns we improved their results by concentrating on fewer sites and publications and lowering our cost per acquisition significantly improved our performance."
Google's Whitehead said the YouTube-owner had put systems in place to ensure it was tackling the issue head on, including making sure that all content brands purchased through its Google Preferred platform was moderated by humans – with 10,000 staff working with AI in this space by the end of the year.
She also noted Google's work with counter-terrorism experts in the UK and abroad, including The Institute for Strategic dialogue.
On the brand safety front, Hatch pointed out that Facebook now had over 2,000 staff tasked with focusing on the "integrity" of its platforms.
"With the application of AI we review 99% of all IS and Al Qaeda content before it’s been reported and often before it reached the platforms itself," he noted. "I recognise that we have a huge responsibility to address specific concerns of advertisers and the industry, just some of the issues that are topical and on the list are measurement, brand safety and transparency. In each case we’ve listened and we’ve acted."
In light of Facebook’s assurances, one of advertising’s biggest spenders on behalf of clients, WPP boss Sorrell, has played down the biggest issues currently plaguing the industry.
WPP invested around $5bn with Google and near $2bn with Facebook in 2017, but the luminary said that the extent to which there has been “fraud or viewability issues, as well as poor, inadequate placement or wrong placement or whatever” was not as significant as has been suggested by some outlets.
Addressing the fact that he believed Facebook and Google to be "media companies," Sorrell acknowledged that there are still problems to be fixed but said the duopoly deserved some credit.
"Since the criticism [around brand safety and transparency] Google in particular has made strenuous efforts and become far more flexible in the provision of data. Facebook perhaps a little bit less so... but the one that’s rigid on the data that’s really coming in, the big banana [will be] Amazon."