Brands 'funding' terrorism is a wake-up call to stop buying audiences

The Times’ front page today slated advertising, crying out that ‘big brands fund terror’ through programmatic. And they unwittingly do; ads from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose and Argos sit next to content by Islamic extremists, white supremacists and pornographers on their sites and YouTube channels.

This is not the first time we have heard about the issues surrounding programmatic advertising. The FT revealed last year that Citi Group, IBM and Microsoft advertised on Jihadi propaganda sites, and we know about the fraudulent money that flows through its ecosystem. A study in the US by the Association of National Advertisers estimated that brands could waste almost £6bn this year on ads no people will ever see.

However, it’s the first time the issue has hit the front page. People beyond our industry are more aware than ever, and consumer understanding and interest will only grow. There is no use in hiding behind the curtain now.

Organisations and companies have outed themselves, exposing their mass market corporate interests and robotised broad stroke advertising ‘strategy’, undermining the values a brand purports to behold. They will be fire fighting.

I can only imagine the chaos, too with media agencies across the UK. Programmatic has meant that racking up a view has never been easier for them, running back to their clients to say ‘we delivered a million views.’ The promise of online advertising was that it would be more accountable and precise than the world of print and broadcasting. But programmatic has become an arithmetical box ticking exercise, which leads a chief executive officer to the comforting conclusion that money was well spent. Ultimately, it’s all smoke and mirrors, fake views and wasted budgets.

Programmatic advertising isn’t working. It doesn’t get people engaged in your content, a view rarely constitutes a real view, it puts corporate reputations at risk and at its worst, it funds terrorism.

But pumping money into programmatic is the obvious thing to do if your content is without the right creative thinking or the strategic insight on what will earn an audience. It’s no surprise that it has such a draw. Ultimately, though, it is creating empty branded noise, which is pushed incessantly at people through algorithms racking up fake views and adblocker downloads.

Brands and marketers need to create content that works hard without media spend, that is powerful and clever and finds people organically. More investment needs to be made in stuff that grabs people’s attention and keeps it, that earns the full view. Brands have got to stop wasting millions in media spend because their campaigns aren’t innovative or engaging enough to earn audiences.

Making content that engages people is not simply about making it excellent and compelling. It is about adding in hooks to the creative that will appeal to different verticals and interest groups, it is about understanding the zeitgeist and what people are into and want to see, it is about knowing what is going to trend on a given day and making that work for you. All of this knowledge plus many other factors, needs to feed back into the creative and inform the story you are telling.

This is a wake-up call. Stop buying audiences. Earn them.

Joe Wade is the managing director and co-founder of creative agency Don’t Panic

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