Tech giants who want to 'organise the world’s information' need to face up to their responsibilities as media owners

It’s been a difficult few months for Google – the poster boy, as it were, of digital marketing – and for YouTube, the search giant’s video sharing platform.

Last year the country’s favourite search engine got a good kicking in the court of public opinion (and at the House of Commons select committee), which exposed the cosy hypocrisy between a corporate mantra to “do no evil” around the world and a corporate structure designed to pay as little tax as possible in Britain.

Since then – and more alarmingly for Google’s investors – there has been a double whammy of client criticism.

First up was P&G’s chief marketing officer, Marc Pritchard, in a speech to the Internet Advertising Bureau in Florida recently. Pritchard issued a wake-up call to the new media tech giants like Google and Facebook (and a rallying cry to their clients) for inventing their own rules and metrics to charge clients for ad space without parallel audit practices. The time for tech companies to keep marking their own homework, while also running a digital duopoly on about 80% of all digital ad spend, is ending: “We’ve come to our senses. We realise there is no sustainable advantage in a complicated, non-transparent, inefficient and fraudulent media supply chain,” said Pritchard. Ouch!

Certainly, it’s self evident that independent, audited new media measurement has not followed the surge in ad dollars that has funded its growth. And now clients – at last! – are starting to cry foul.

Second, last week, came the news that a tranche of clients are reported to have suspended ad deals with Google’s YouTube video channels, in concern at ad placement. An investigation by the Times found ads had been placed (inadvertently, no doubt, by some autistic algorithm) alongside videos by hate preachers and other extremists. The dubious ethics of making money out of hate videos for the tech firms should be be concern enough – but for their advertising customers this is seriously damaging in the modern inter-connected social world where consumer angst ricochets around the world in a tweet.

So, client reaction has been swift. Scott Cornell, from Lyft, the US ride-sharing service, told the New York Times “this is beyond offensive” after its ads appeared next to videos from a racist skinhead group. ISBA, under the leadership of new director general Phil Smith, was forthright on behalf of its advertiser members, rubbishing Google’s half-hearted apology at Advertising Week Europe last week: “Let us be clear, it has not gone far enough … Whatever Google’s editorial policy, advertising should only be sold against content that is safe for brands and if it is serious about tackling this it needs to increase its enforcement and support capabilities urgently”.

Ouch again.

Weak measurement, poor ad placement (to say nothing of fake news) – all this is fresh stimulus to change how we value, place and report digital media. For advertisers (and their agencies) who have been seduced by the digital media bandwagon for so long, now is the opportunity to scrutinise. For the tech giants, now is the time to engage.

Some digital pioneers have been very reluctant to put in safeguards for consumers (for instance to protect against access to child pornography or sites promoting suicide and anorexia) . Others – like Facebook – have been fundamentalist in their support for individual privacy, even if security services want access (likely under a search warrant) to terrorists’ final WhatsApp messages. Advertisers – who bankroll all these services – should demand greater responsibility from the media platforms who nurture their brands.

On measurement specifically, now is the moment for a joint intervention – clients, agencies and digital media owners – to establish the same sort of mutually respected transparency and audit standards across media owners that television and radio have delivered for years. It’s ironic, of course, that digital media which sells itself on the delivery of rich data and clear metrics actually lacks common and transparent measurement for the advertisers it serves.

Like all tripartite interventions into media measurement, it will be tricky to navigate the current vested interests.

Media agencies have a patchy history on buying transparency, needing to put their own house in order a few years ago after the lack of internal controls from some in their handling and routing of client rebates. Now those same agencies will have to navigate a way to transparency. That breaks the competitive advantage of individual media platforms claiming different metrics and challenges programmatic trading platforms that trade off those metrics. But advertisers need a transparent measurement that recognises and accounts for a short form view on YouTube versus a video clip on Facebook versus a 15 second disposable image on snapchat.

In turn, advertisers will have to be flexible as digital media matures and puts its house in order. They will also need more rigour to police ad placement rather than being disinterestedly seduced by the cost efficiencies of programmatic buying in the vast expanse of the web. Only real client engagement will tame the wild west of the digital media frontier into a sustainable future for all.

Finally, and most importantly, the tech giants who want to “connect the world” or “organise the world’s information” now need to face up to their responsibilties as media owners. Connecting their clients with their ads and organising their clients ad inventory would be a good first step.

Andrew Harrison is a former UK marketer of the year and has held chief executive roles for both clients and media organisations in the UK. Now based in Hong Kong, he is principal consultant for Ogilvy RED Asia Pacific

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