Strategy In The Age Of Media Murkiness

Episode 98: Strategy In The Age Of Media Crisis

Digital media is having a moment, one that if not aggressively addressed will turn into a full blown crisis of confidence. Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard caused a sensation when he called on digital media providers to become transparent in the face of “crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences”. Major advertisers, including the UK government, the Guardian and Havas have frozen all Google and YouTube advertising in the UK. What on earth is happening, how did we get here, and what is a digital strategist to do in this environment?

It didn’t have to be this way. The promise of digital media was that here, finally was a way to truly measure the impact of the advertising dollar. Its greatest benefit, the core value proposition was its transparency and accountability. Unlike any other media that had come before, digital media promised the ability to connect cause and effect in efficient, effective and predictable ways.

So what went wrong? This is a morality tale, and at the heart of it is the eternal sin of greed. And it is not just greed from one person or entity, but rather greed across the industry.

The warning signs started to emerge years ago as the media giants started developing vertically integrated services and products. While this gave the marketer great benefits when advertising within a single platform, the problem quickly emerged that the providers, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and in particular Facebook were making it increasingly difficult to share data across platforms. This led to the idea of walled gardens where you could build extremely integrated campaigns within Facebook for example, but not between Facebook and other platforms. The emergence of these ‘walled gardens’, developed to protect competitive advantages should have been the first warning sign that something was not quite right. After all, this was in no way advantageous to the advertiser or the audience.

The next big rumble came in the firestorm that was ignited in 2015 by Jon Mandel, the former CEO of Mediacom at an ANA forum, where he alleged that major advertising holding companies routinely pocketed kickbacks from the digital media providers. Again, none of this was to the benefit of the advertiser or the consumer. The argument has been made that this was the fault of the brands and their procurement practices, viewing agencies not as partners but rather as vendors to be squeezed for every last dollar, forcing them to get creative in order to make money. But this argument overlooks the fact that the agencies had a choice to make, and they chose to go down a path that was the antithesis of the transparency and accountability that sat at the heart of the promise of digital media.

We fast forward to 2016, where the crisis of confidence begins to really blow up with the increasing issue of non-human traffic being counted and paid for as human impressions, as well as ongoing issues with the reliability of data reporting by many of the platforms such as Facebook. It was this issue of poor traffic and fuzzy metrics that finally made Marc Pritchard take a stand, and when P&G speaks, our industry pays attention.

Finally, This problem is exacerbated by the emergence of ‘Fake News’ and the inability of major media networks, including Google to guarantee that an advertiser’s brand will not appear on controversial sites, including alt-right, anti-semitic, racist and even nazi websites.

Yikes.

So what should you do as a strategist to help guide your client through this minefield?

I believe the solution is fairly straightforward, and is based on adhering to 3 principles:

The First principle is to adhere to the promise of transparency and accountability. Do not hide fees. Report media performance as you get it from the providers and interpret it to the benefit of the client, pointing out where it does and doesn’t make sense. Make the case to invest in third party technology to collect and report this data; use the issue of media obfuscation to make the case for this type of investment.

The second principle is to be the client advocate. This means always to work with the client’s best interests at heart. If they are pushing you to cut your fees, explain to them the impact on your ability to give them your best work so they are making these decisions with all the facts out in the open. Approach every digital interaction asking if this is in the best interests of the consumer, because the better the consumer experience, the greater the brand performance. If a platform will not provide the necessary access or metrics to allow for the level of integration and accountability necessary to activate that, then minimize your investment with them.

The third and final principle is to not over-react. Sure, cutting off a channel because your advertising showed up on an obnoxious site sends a strong message. But this could be cutting off your nose to spite your face, and ultimately hurts your client. In an age where search is dominated by Google, pulling out of AdWords is just not an option. Stay vigilant. Invest in technology to better manage this. Continuously audit and manually add more sites to your blacklist, reduce your investment in display properties that don’t accept responsibility, but don’t cancel all your plans. This helps no-one.

We are in a difficult and frankly unexpected time for digital media. But adhering to these basic principles will help us weather this storm and come out stronger.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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