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P&G transparency fallout: Is this the end or a new beginning for digital media?

Digital media is all around us and there’s arguably never been a more exciting time in marketing, but there’s also never been an easier time to waste your advertising budgets chasing false promises.

While I’m a long term advocate of the potential power of digital I’ve also closely followed, and often agreed with, many of its more vocal dissenters. At the end of January, the likes of Mark Ritson and Bob Hoffman gained a powerful new ally in the form of P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard, who proved that event speeches can be powerfully provocative and shake up an industry if they try.

Ritson has unpacked the four central challenges from the speech in hard-hitting pieces in Marketing Week and in a 3,000-word expose published in the Australian and on LinkedIn. They’re well worth a read if you get the chance, and in many ways I agree with the arguments as told there, but they mark the starting gun of a conversation, not its ultimate conclusion.

While many see this as a harsh reckoning day for the digital ad industry, I personally absolutely welcome the public nature of the discussion. Certainly the questions raised are issues the largest advertisers have been grappling with for some time, but it’s important for the industry as a whole to tackle them together now too.

Sadly, for some marketers it won’t be the nuance of the MRC standard or different measurement partners which most confuses them, it’s the fact that we are having this conversation at all. Far too many brands still push out ‘organic’ social content in the hope that it will go viral, or focus their measurement on intangible digital actions like clicks and engagement, with little consideration of how it stacks up to more traditional media metrics. I would hate to be the one having to explain what the ‘viewability’ of these such approaches can be in hard numbers.

There remain many ways to completely sabotage your digital marketing efforts by setting the wrong objectives, or not investing the media in the first place, long before any supply chain takes its toll. Hopefully news that the biggest advertiser on the planet is struggling with these reach and viewability nuances will jolt other marketers into realising they perhaps haven’t even been asking the right questions.

That said, while these rally cries set the digital industry off in a much more mature direction, it still feels slightly like using a compass to navigate when we could be using a GPS. While it makes perfect sense to want to have consistent measurement standards across platforms, the reality is that many are approached and consumed in very different ways – perhaps as starkly different as TV, radio and print are themselves from one another.

Understanding exactly how much of something someone saw is a good step, but it remains a proxy for any true sense of how that impacted them, and what it changed about their mindset and actions. There’s a risk of blindly following viewability measures and discarding anything marketers have (hopefully) learnt about the relative effectiveness and impact of different digital channels through surveys, MMM and other research.

Ultimately a focus on tying digital marketing to actual business and brand results should remain a key goal, and one that should be layered on top of viewability conversations. Of course one of the main ways of improving your ROI may well be cleaning up the supply chain, certainly clearing out fraud, and generally improving the efficiency of your media buys, but the quality of your creative, and the impact of your messaging, will be major factors too.

One clear distinction that I feel should be drawn is the difference in viewability impact caused by a real person only briefly seeing an advert, and that advert never actually appearing on a screen (for example showing up for a bot, loading down the page, or being hidden behind another ad). The latter is something we absolutely need to continue pushing much harder on and find better ways of identifying and deduping fraud. I’m not sure the viewability fraud situation is always as bad as the worst stats make out though; high suggested stats for bot traffic include ‘good’ bots like Google’s own web crawlers which can be automatically removed from ad serving systems, and cost per click ads are far more at risk than reach-based planning due to their higher per user bounty.

As to how long an impression needs to be for it to count, I would contest this is also less black and white that it sounds. Watch someone (the younger the better) scrolling through their social media feeds and you’ll soon realise it takes them less than a second to comprehend each post and evaluate whether it’s worth any more of their attention. Surely, however, it IS better if they spend more time looking at the ad? On Facebook again I have seen meta-analyses which surprisingly show no correlation on this front, though this is likely because other factors (notably how optimised the creative is to the environment) have a far bigger effect.

Facebook’s insistence that it is a video platform, and that with a few tweaks your existing TV ad can work great there, is almost certainly rather an over sell, but the platform’s difficulty in holding attention past the one second mark doesn’t necessarily mean it cannot impact within that time, given the right creative. It remains by far the biggest, and arguably one of the most effective, ways of reaching people with static, or near-static messaging. For marketers who do believe they need their ads to be seen for longer then inventory can be bought on a view (not reach) optimising basis, unsurprisingly greatly increasing the viewability rates when measurement and optimisation are aligned, but decreasing the total audience impacted along the way.

A platform like YouTube’s ability to get consumers to watch at least five seconds of your ad before they can even begin to skip does of course score hugely well on the viewability front, but it comes at a slightly higher cost which means the total number of people seeing something of your advertising at all will again be less. It’s probably a better way of getting people to see more traditional video advertising, but almost certainly not an outright better way of advertising full stop. A blunt take on viewability could see advertisers throwing the baby out with the bath water, potentially actually decreasing the overall reach and impact of their campaigns along the way, but if doing so weeds out the very worst of the internet it may be a short term price worth paying.

On either platform, which are now thus both the villains and heroes in this piece, the ‘real person’ viewability dramatically outperforms the open web. These are platforms which routinely hit well above 90%, third-party verified, on target reach and which are only getting better as they build on their respective ‘people not cookies’ approaches to targeting. Much as we might object to their joint power and market share, one of the reasons for their dominance is the relative safety they provide from the worst of digital marketing’s challenges.

All of which raises the point that while I agree with someone else marking their homework, I’ve actually not seen many cases where they’ve been notably wrong in their own scoring. Even amid Facebook’s well-publicised misreporting, there was really no excuse for advertisers to be shocked by the news that watch times on the platform were very short; other metrics and Facebook’s own sales people had been flagging this for some time. Choosing to ignore that feedback and promote content which communicates little or nothing in the first few seconds is simply shooting yourself in the foot.

Whilst we can nitpick around which 3rd party vendors are brought in to keep them on track, the reality is the MRC standard is a simple principle which any such vendor could apply. Anti-competitive ‘walled garden’ behaviour from the big digital duopoly could ultimately have much more impact on how the media is bought in the first place, and their mutual efforts to limit how their inventory is bought and sold through any means other than their own direct routes. Given the power of the platforms Google itself directly controls, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for other ad tech suppliers, blocked from accessing this jewel, to compete. Whatever one’s view on the sector, a lack of competition rarely leads to improvements for purchasers.

As for the infamous charts showing where client ad dollars are being eaten up before they actually buy any media? Perhaps working at a media agency I am not neutral enough to comment but there’s certainly a valid point to be made that advertisers should be cautious about spending money on data fees and targeting if they don’t see greater value returned by the increased accuracy of their campaigns. In many cases there is far too much focus put on reaching very specific (and ultimately expensive) targets where a broader approach could have had more overall impact, but in others the greater efficiency earned by targeting exactly the right people and moments can justify the costs.

It strikes me that you could produce a similar chart for other media types (showing what gets eaten up in maintaining the tech that broadcasts the TV signal, in sales person or affiliate commissions, in agency fees, etc). What ultimately matters in any case is whether the total price paid is worth the results it can drive for your business. Yes, of course, cutting out some of the middle men may be a way of ensuring it is, but only in so long as cutting out the experts (whether man or machine) doesn’t damage the efficiency of your planning and buying.

Speaking personally, the people I work with would all be very aligned with the message behind Marc Pritchard’s speech and I think will encourage the challenges and debates that it inspires. A sweeping implementation of a non-perfect standard is almost certainly a better starting point than no standards at all, but it doesn’t strike me as the end of the debate. It’s important that all involved in the digital industry don’t sit back and hope the noise fades away, but actively tackle the challenges raised as I believe many already are.

Jerry Daykin is a digital marketer who has worked both client and agency side. Follow his quest for #DigitalSense over on LinkedIn

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