For nearly a quarter century, the digital ad business has been acting like a depraved, sociopathic child – growing like wildfire while recklessly betraying, undermining, and pissing off virtually everyone in its global orbit.
Digital advertising’s many deadly sins now have generated an unprecedented plague of problems for everybody. Singly, each would be a disaster. Together, they’re an existential threat to both advertising and publishing.
A plague of bots has brands paying to have their ads clicked by non-humans. Wildly varying “viewability” standards allow ads few humans can view, while other ads make it impossible for humans to see anything but the ad. Programmatic buys fund fake news and hate-speech sites, damaging both society and the brands unwittingly writing the checks. Media-buying agencies take kickbacks. And so on.
That’s a daunting list, but it doesn’t even touch the two biggest problems. At the top is ad blocking, which demonstrates the audience’s exponentially growing disgust with an industry that has admitted showing little or no regard for people’s needs and desires.
Next comes the troubling fact that network effects tend to create online monopolies. The ad industry is now increasingly dependent on two giants: Google and Facebook. Estimates of their combined share of online ad budgets range from just under 60% to 75%; the high number comes from WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, who ought to know.
This monopolistic dominance is only going to worsen. Digital investing legend Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins reports that Google and Facebook have been capturing more than three-quarters of all growth in digital ads (KPCB, 2016); U.K. firm Enders Analysis puts their share of growth at 90 percent (Enders Analysis, 2016).
A monopoly – even a shared one – doesn’t bode well for price competition, transparency, or innovation. In a new research paper about the digital economy, British economist and former adviser to the U.K. Treasury Diane Coyle sees both Google and Facebook’s dominance as difficult – if not impossible – to challenge for now (Toulouse School of Economics, 2016).
The long-standing warnings of web pioneers and content marketing innovators have all come true: Traditional advertising’s soul-destroying chickens – bad ads, maddening interruptions, mindless product claims, and general abuse of customers online – have come home to roost.
The awful situation we now face is rooted in marketers’ fears of change and their slavish devotion to the good old days. This has been marked by a fundamental failure to understand how radically different digital is from TV or any traditional medium, and how real people (formerly known exclusively as “consumers”) use it.
Part of this is marketers’ failure to grasp the technical complexities of advertising online – the details of digital media buying, the limits of retargeting, the mechanics of ad-serving platforms, the duty to defend privacy and security, and so on. But brands and agencies also have failed to see that digital requires a creative approach that is diametrically opposed to the blunt-instrument sales messages of traditional ads. Every brand that ever ran its TV spots on its own websites has helped dig this hole.
Joe McCambley, who helped invent the banner ad in 1994, once confessed, “My children tell me that’s like inventing smallpox.”
In a 2013 Harvard Business Review post, McCambley writes that brands win on the web “because they ask ‘How can I help you?’ instead of ‘What can I sell you?’ ” He adds, “Advertisers and their agencies, for the most part, don’t know how to be helpful.”
The content marketing business has led the way in this critique of online advertising over and over for nearly 20 years, ever since the first banner ad appeared on Wired.com. It’s accepted dogma for content marketers that the only way for brands to use the web properly is to give people valuable content and useful utilities. The trouble is, as McCambley writes, once the web got big enough to attract the attention of big advertising, it was curtains for the web’s founding dream of providing helpful or valuable information:
Before long, content and utility were corrupted by the only thing big agencies understood: reach and frequency. We were back to delivering what TV spots, radio spots, and print ads had delivered for years: sales messages. The rest, as they say, is history.
Here’s the deal: Ads don’t work on the web. If they did, the ad blocker never would have been invented. Still, with or without ads, all media is migrating to digital platforms. Which means ads soon won’t have anywhere to go anymore. Advertising as we’ve known it is disappearing from the earth. The puzzle facing us all is what will replace so-called advertising as digital takes over everything.
The ad industry has had 20 years to solve this puzzle; it has failed. This has created a huge opportunity for content marketers, who – like it or not – are in the awkward position of owning the only workable solution to marketing’s future. This is content marketing’s epic moment: Will the content folks be the ones to summon the needed courage and develop the strategic know-how to take over the selling tasks formerly performed by advertising? Only content marketing has a proven approach to transform ads and all commercial messages into something valued by real people, something that will attract attention instead of generating revulsion, something that will actually work for real brands across digital platforms.
It should not be a shock that this year began with an attack on the digital ad industry from the planet’s biggest advertiser, Procter & Gamble. The company’s $7 billion annual ad budget earns it a lot of attention in ad land.
“Craft or crap, that’s really the big question” facing the digital ad business, P&G’s CMO Marc Pritchard told a digital industry audience.
Media coverage of Pritchard’s harsh, highly technical ultimatum about digital’s flawed “media supply chain” was widespread. There was little mention, however, that his central demand was for creativity in digital to drive top-line growth – something P&G, among many others, desperately needs after two-plus years of shrinking sales despite pouring billions into ads.
“We don’t want to waste time and money on a crappy media supply chain. Instead, we want to invest in raising the bar on the creative craft to drive growth on our brands,” Pritchard said, summing up his point.
“I mean, let’s face it,” he told the leadership meeting of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, digital advertising’s main trade group. “All of us in this room bombard consumers with thousands of ads a day, subject them to endless ad-load times, interrupt them with pop-ups, and overpopulate their screens and feeds with just plain bad work. I mean, is it any wonder that ad blockers are growing 40%?”
No, it’s no wonder at all.
It was ad blockers that finally panicked the complacent ad business in 2014 and, in a way, made Scott Cunningham famous a year later. Cunningham, a long-time technologist and executive in publishing and advertising, was working for the IAB in 2015 when he wrote the trade group’s first acknowledgment of the industry’s anti-audience excesses. “We messed up,” was the opening line and he went on to explain that “we lost track of the user experience.”
Cunningham’s piece proposed a host of technical steps to help online ads load faster, eat less data, and, generally, be less obnoxious. But more than a year later, Pritchard’s diatribe to the IAB and the ever-increasing use of ad blockers show that not enough has changed to save digital advertising from itself.
Cunningham left the IAB last year and now heads his own consultancy, Cunningham Tech. He told me in a recent interview that the current crisis is “somewhat of an inevitable intersection.”
Marketers have long accepted blindly the promise that online ads would be a cheap, reliable source of mass influence. That promise, made in the web’s early days, turned out to be false.
Pursuing mass audiences for marketers and profitable revenue for publishers, Cunningham and his fellow technologists focused on “quantity over quality” and “our over-engineering of cool, whizz-bang things” that tech can do, like targeting and retargeting.
Now, says Cunningham, marketers are “faced with the reality that ‘This isn’t going to be what we thought … It’s not going to be: I can pick up the phone, call my agency buyer, write a giant check, and rest assured that my brand lift is going to be what I thought.’”
The key to necessary change is that marketers must internalize how digital works. It’s time to stop making massive programmatic buys based on vague criteria, time to carefully select the sites where a brand’s ads will appear, time to realize that “quality is better than quantity,” he says.
Cunningham is an optimist who still believes in ads. He thinks marketers are finally turning down the right path. “It’s early on, but it’s happening,” he says.
Pritchard and others in the industry, however, say it’s embarrassingly late in the history of digital advertising to be waiting for fundamental reform. The IAB itself, which must accept a lot of the blame for the mess created by the industry it represents, is 21 years old this year. “It’s time to grow up,” as Pritchard says.
Cunningham thinks there’s time for reform. “I’m not convinced, even though the consumer may have been abused by these ads, that that’s going to be the end story of the world wide web,” he says.
It remains to be seen, however, if the massively recalcitrant, change-resistant ad industry can focus on the main problem of giving audiences something they will choose to watch, listen to, and read instead of continuing to provide crap they choose to block and avoid.
Your guide to digital decency and success
Here are a half-dozen steps for making sure your brand stops aiding and abetting the murder of the web, and starts producing results. My first piece of advice is to put the content marketers in charge of all your advertising and marketing because they’ve solved the biggest and ugliest of marketing’s dilemmas – they know how to provide value to people through marketing messages. Needless to say, there are more than six steps to doing digital right, but if I were CMO of the world (or even a single brand), this is where I’d start.
1. Take responsibility
Agencies are important, but they usually do what their clients tell them to do. Bad practices are the fault of the folks who write the checks. Brands must be responsible for every step of the process of planning, creating, and executing digital programs. The buck stops with brands.
2. Do no harm to your audience
It’s critical, at the very least, to stop adding to people’s frustration with online ads. Immediately name an audience advocate to your marketing team and give that person the power to stop audience abuse dead in its tracks. Admit that people are not online to see your ads, and ensure that your ads don’t make it harder for people to do what they want to do on the web. Keep the data load light. Don’t cover stuff up. Don’t be obnoxiously distracting with flashes and needless animation. Think hard about how maddening pre-roll video can be for viewers. Ask if there isn’t a better way to gain attention. Ask how much negative attention you really want. You get the idea.
3. End silos in your marketing organization
Way too often, digital remains an afterthought for brand teams. 2017 is not the year to be naming a “head of digital;” it’s time to integrate all your marketing and adopt a digital-first approach. Immediately create and enforce an integrated process in your marketing. Remember, deciding that your digital messaging must echo the TV spot is a suicidal move these days. Organizational transformation is tough but necessary.
4. Know where your messages are
There is no excuse for brands funding extremists, fake news, hate speech, and other destructive click-bait websites. There’s also no excuse for paying for non-existent, fly-by-night bot fraud sites. Make sure you never again allow your media agency to target “men 19 to 29 who drink beer” or “people in the market for a new car.” Develop a brand-specific “white list” of sites you want to be on. Put someone in charge of brand safety or appoint a working group to review that list regularly. Understand it’s all your fault if your brand messages wind up next to a white supremacy creed or a story about the Democrats’ plan to create sex-slave camps. (Re-read Step 1.)
5. Draft your agency contracts carefully
Most brands have more lawyers than I do, so I’ll keep this short. Build in the right to audit your ad buying in your contracts and conduct spot audits to ensure that every penny of your media money goes to buying legitimate media. Make sure you get your money back for any impression delivered on a site that isn’t on your white list. Once you’ve closed all the loopholes for kickbacks and mayhem, stop cutting agency fees to the point where no one can do decent work for you.
6. Be valuable and useful
A good brand, like a good person, must be about more than itself. Understand the history and promise of digital. The wonder of the web is that the audience is in charge and has the power to block and avoid anything. The dream of digital was always to democratize communication and help make a better world. Take that to heart. Ask, “What do we stand for? How can we help?” Develop a unique, owned and useful brand narrative that comes from your audience’s real experience and informs everything you do online. What the hell, let it inform everything you do everywhere. Always remember that the key to success online is to give people valuable, helpful experiences, not self-serving, repetitive sales pitches. It’s a different world than traditional media. It’s taking over everything. Time to get used to it.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute