Advertisers Demand the Web Get Better in 2017

Photo by sorsillo

In January, Proctor & Gamble’s Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard put the digital advertising world on notice that his company will no longer tolerate the waste or opaqueness of the advertising ecosystem. “We’ve been giving a pass to the new media in the spirit of learning,” Pritchard stated in his keynote address to the International Advertising Bureau (IAB).  “We’ve come to our senses. We realize there is no sustainable advantage in a complicated, nontransparent, inefficient and fraudulent media supply chain.”  With over $7 billion in online spending, P&G is the largest among U.S. advertisers; and where they lead, the rest of the industry is likely to follow.

I wrote in December 2015 about a report published by the IAB, which revealed that significant flaws in the digital advertising supply chain—invalid traffic, infringed content, and malware—were costing advertisers just over $8 billion/year in waste. That represented about 16% of global, digital ad purchases.  Although ad spending has continued to grow since that report was written, if Pritchard’s address represents the mood of advertisers, they’re frustrated with two things above all:  the inability to control where their ads appear, and the lack of consistency and transparency in reporting by the major platforms.

In response, Pritchard has laid out the new demands P&G will be making of its advertising partners for 2017, including third-party measurement of metrics (rather than self-reporting by the platforms) and an insistence that all partners become TAG-certified.  It was in February of 2015 that the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) launched this industry-led, voluntary initiative to separate the quality, legal sites from the garbage of the internet. TAG was seen by copyright holders as a major step forward because the initiative sought, among other things, to keep brand advertising off the large-scale piracy sites.

The Ad Exchange is Too Opaque

The underlying problem for advertisers is the automated exchange in which ad impressions are purchased from the available supply—a system that provides advertisers with limited control over where their ads appear and no standardized reporting on the return received for their investments.  An advertiser buys, say, a million impressions, and when those impressions are reached, the advertiser buys another million impressions; but there is very little insight into the nature of those impressions.  It’s a process Prichard calls “murky at best and fraudulent at worst.”

The recent “discovery” of Fake News illustrates the problem.  Appropriately used, the term fake news refers to hucksters who figured out that they can make up to several thousand dollars a month just by inventing provocative, click-bait headlines that draw traffic to sites that have nothing to do with actual news.  These site owners do considerable harm to the world while siphoning value from advertisers who would not otherwise choose to feature their brands among this kind of junk content.

Recently, the News Media Association (NMA) of the UK asked the British government to investigate the impact that Google and Facebook are having on legitimate news by supporting fake news with their “murky” advertising platforms; and the NMA also cites what appears to be a growing problem of ads supporting terrorist propaganda. As I’ve reported in the past, the lack of control in these ad exchanges is why major brand commercials end up on sites like YouTube alongside ISIS recruiting videos or other violent-extremist propaganda.

Brooke Singman for Fox News, notes that year’s Hyundai Super Bowl spot, which pays tribute to U.S. troops serving overseas—and which cost Hyundai about $5 million to run on TV—appeared on one of YouTube’s terror-linked channels. And while YouTube’s official statements express a zero-tolerance policy for terror-supporting accounts and videos, the problem persists while parent company Google remains typically unclear about its ability to remove targeted content or accounts.

With over 300 videos uploaded to YouTube every minute, I don’t think anyone doubts the scope of the challenge; but it is certainly true that the copyright holders, for instance, often see Google as magically omniscient where its own interests are at stake and then mortally fallible in the service of others’ interests. So, I imagine if P&G and other advertisers are truly drawing lines in the sand this year, Google may suddenly discover an extraordinary capacity to weed out terrorist, criminal, and other undesirable content from the YouTube platform.

In fact, Eric Feinberg, CEO of GIPEC says that he can very quickly identify and organize questionable content on major platforms with the system his company has developed for scanning hashtags in multiple languages. “Because our technology can anticipate key communications strands and images being used by terrorist and hate-speech groups, the system can block, quarantine, and sandbox this kind of content for review before it’s published, thus reducing the chance that ads will appear before or next to undesirable content.”

Where this issue overlaps with security, it is possible that the major social media platforms will begin to feel more pressure from the government to stop profiting—however inadvertently—from terrorist propaganda on their sites.  Depending on what form that takes, we are likely to see some civil-libertarian backlash to these policies and also to expect reality to get lost in the rhetoric on all sides.  But for sure money talks. And if the advertisers are demanding that “new media” start to clean house and provide some of the accountability and quality they’re used to from “old media,” my guess is they’re going to get what they want or find other ways to spend their $200 billion.

© 2017, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • So is the goal of this “let’s clean up advertising” something like “once we do, every reasonable person will agree that ad blocking is stealing?”

    To me it isn’t about ads. Ads are the least of my worries, and I don’t use ad-blockers. I do use tracker-blockers, and most (but not all) websites that shame people for ad-blocking throw me into the ad-blocker user category because I use Privacy Badger, which is NOT an ad blocker (I see quite a few ads using it, really). It’s become quite obvious that analytics, not advertising, is where the real money is. It’s also become obvious that parts of the ad community are striking deals with parts of the anti-ad community as evidenced by Ad Block Plus (Ad Block Minus would be more apropos) adopting an “acceptable ad” policy. I suppose I as a visitor of websites have my own acceptable ad policy. For me, ads designed to bombard me with sensory overload are actually acceptable (although I will make a mental note of the domain and very likely never again follow a link to said domain). What is not acceptable to me is the use of persistent cookies, cross site cookies, etc. I suspect that both the ad industry and the content industry are in a mad rush to arrive on a definition of acceptable ads that addresses market research tactics as little as possible.

    There’s the related issue of privacy, where everyone in the information industry is on a charm offensive in which “we have a privacy policy” is supposed to be taken as some kind of virtue. My idea of a privacy policy is something simple and straightforward that reads “we don’t monetize our server logs.” Obviously the industry wants the mainstream understanding of privacy to include weaker statements like “we don’t sell your information to third parties” (read: we do market research in-house).

    I came to the conclusion years ago that it’s theoretically impossible for monetization not to involve value subtraction. I don’t know whether you agree with that assessment. My guess is that you actually do, but that getting artists paid is a higher priority than designing technology for functionality rather than control. If so, that’s OK, it’s a free country and we’re all entitled to our opinions. If not, I’m really all ears.

    My approach to creators-gotta-get-paid is jobs programs for creators. Mostly non-academic IT jobs at universities is a large part of what made the open source software revolution possible. Nowadays nobody has an IT job has non-disclosure, work-for-hire, etc. You talk a lot of “creatives vs. Internet industry” but from my perspective they’re both characterized by extreme IP hawkery. But seriously, look at this climate of “anything that can’t be monetized can’t be implemented online” and I think there’s your real explanation for why so much of the Web has gone all clickbait. If I’m right, DRM-ing the web will only make that aspect of it worse.

    • First of all, your blog post is great. I generally agree with all of your observations, though I would place them in the category of more granular discussions about the deployment, effectiveness, legality, appropriateness, etc. of advertising online. I think what’s happening now is a broader story–and I’m about to post a follow-up–in which the ad buyers who pay these companies billions are, for the first time, really putting the brakes on. No matter what else we say about it–and I agree that analytics or data harvesting is where a lot of the money is–the bottom line is advertisers suspending their buys for banner and video ads is a story. It’s going to have an effect on the Web as we know it, for better or worse.

      • So maybe they’re throwing their weight around, or maybe are about to make a big move. I’ll remember that I heard it here first. If they want less of “invalid traffic, infringed content, and malware” that could be seen as a good thing — even though I’d be unhappy if “infringed content” means “ad blocking is stealing.” And two or three ain’t bad. If it comes to that I’ll respect it, possibly by studiously avoiding sites that adopt that principle (a process I’ve already begun). There’s no free lunch though. I expect those two or three (take your pick) changes for the better to be offset by demands for more precisely targeted advertising opportunities. Which technology will provide, anyway, of course. I reserve the right to at least attempt to implement technological countermeasures. Like Rick Falkvinge says: Privacy remains your own responsibility.

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