Cracks appearing in the walls around adtech’s secret garden…? It’s about time!

At the recent “Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting” in Hollywood, Fla. Proctor and Gamble’s Chief Brand Officer Mark Pritchard threw down a much needed gauntlet for the Adtech industry to pick up.

“We’ve been giving a pass to the new media in the spirit of learning. We’ve come to our senses. We realise there is no sustainable advantage in a complicated, non-transparent, inefficient and fraudulent media supply chain.”

“It’s time to grow up. It’s time for action.”

It felt great.

Not much in life beats being proven right. Especially when it’s a long-held opinion that had previously gone unacknowledged.

Having had personal experience with the problems caused by the opaque practices that represent the “way it is” in closed-platform advertising such as Google and Facebook, I was thrilled to see a mainstream advertiser finally kick back against them.

On this one spectacular day, Mark Pritchard was my champion.

To learn why, let’s travel back through the mists of time…

Cracks Appearing in the walls around Adtech’s secret garden? It’s about time.

One man’s Adtech journey

An eager young rogue in his first real job out of university is running paid search campaigns for household name brands at the tender young age of 23. With no more than 3 months of self-taught experience, and eager to impress his bosses in this thrusting, New Media wonderland, he works 12 hours a day to prove his value. Defining himself by his ability to defy bigger budget agencies and their clients, his toil is rewarded with high-performing, golden-egg keywords driving conversions at rock-bottom CPAs.

But logging into his trusty Adwords account one fateful morning, our hero finds that overnight, the fruits of his labour have vanished.

More specifically, he must now pay £5.00 per click for something which previously cost him £0.05 per click. Why? Because of “quality score”.

OK, he thinks. I can figure out how to influence that. But lo, the factors from which it is derived are not available for public consumption. Anywhere. And, judging from the spontaneous combustion happening across industry search forums, no-one else knows what they are either. Nobody has any idea what’s just happened and why the hell we all need to pay so much more all of a sudden.

Why did this happen?

4 weeks later, Google announce their quarterly earnings call. They weren’t going to make it, but a recent upswing in the latter part of the quarter put them ahead of expectations. They defy Wall St expectations and Google stock blooms once more.

Coincidences are funny things…

As you can probably guess, that was when I first started to have doubts about Adtech and my beloved Google (“Do no evil!” etc.). But it was obvious that they controlled

a: the majority of search advertising

and b: the apparatus to if not exploit advertisers, certainly the ability to bend them over a barrel.

Now, no-one has much sympathy for Morgan Stanley paying a big jump for “credit cards” in Adwords. But when you see mom & pop experience an increase of 1000%+ for “local apple pie” in Adwords — the long tail of the Adwords advertiser base — it’s hard not to feel the people doing no evil are at least acting pretty ruthlessly.

Zoom Out

It’s a move that is noticed. Not least by the Adtech advisors to the King in the wings, a certain Mr. Zuckerberg.

Having failed embarrassingly with Beacon ads, Facebook’s team rally to make their platform a viable ad opportunity. Based on organic social likes, can they really exploit people and companies to buy popularity?

Of course they can.

The Adtech trap is laid

Users go on Facebook and are bombarded with “Your friend likes this” ads in their feeds (which previously were sacred, with ads cast aside to a secondary column).

Aware of Facebook’s status as a juggernaut in social traction, marketers and agencies need to make sure their bosses can boast about the size of their (fake) Facebook fan base.

As the revenue opportunities from this product start to fall away, Facebook strips away the ability of the companies which invested their time and effort into building their audiences to “reach” 99% of the followers they had curated, forcing page owners (note: not just big budget advertisers, but millions of small businesses and legitimate social communities) to pay to reach their own audience.

Those who never fell for Facebook’s ploy in the first place and focused their efforts instead on posting content and media that people actually liked (which in turn kept their audiences suckling at Facebook’s digital teat throughout the process) suffer the worst.

It’s like selling someone a rug, pulling it out from underneath them, and charging them when they want to pick themselves up off the floor. Over and over.

These are but a few examples of how the walled gardens of ad behemoths have distorted the value of digital marketing space — to the benefit of no-one but themselves.

The curtain has been pulled back, but to what end?

One could argue that all of the above were well reported in industry news, and in some cases even solicited outcry. But not where it counted — budgets.

Consequently, the main players continue to ride high on obfuscated premiums, the baseline for which they have set themselves and apparently feel no need to explain to their patrons.

Ultimately, all credit to them. That’s free market capitalism. They have created the best advertising systems the world has ever seen. But that doesn’t mean there doesn’t need to be oversight.

Finally, it looks like there just might be be.

Is there more to the story?

Lost in all this is the one point that no-one is really discussing: When such advertising does work, what happens post-click?

Brands & agencies are still obsessing over eyeballs and “impressions”, and missing what should be the most important bit — how you treat people who actually are engaging with your online ads. It is easy enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater and label the sum total of current efforts on such platforms “crappy advertising” as Pritchard did, but shouldn’t brands accept at least some responsibility for the sign-off role they play in this process? After all, agencies are indeed executing briefs set by the brands themselves, in this Proctor and Gamble is no different.

The vast majority of CPG / FMCG advertising currently online still provides a poor customer experience, with either generic landing pages that don’t match the ad’s calls to action, overly aggressive targeting, or dumping customers straight onto a retailer (who over 50% of them don’t shop with).

How about a post-click experience that actually solves a real problem for somebody? How about instead of worrying about viewability, brands and agencies take a step back and create something worthy of someones time? How about you make your brand a solution to a user’s problem, rather than just more noise in their busy digital day?

It’s about time for that too.