Building Trust and Belief in Online Advertising


Trust and reputation are fragile concepts. You work hard to build your business on solid foundations, and then one bad call destroys both your reputation and your customers’ trust, instantly. Ask Volkswagen. Or indeed Henry Ford, who once said “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do”.

There are too many involved in the online advertising business who aren’t trusted, too many who have harmed its reputation. Says who? Say the only people whose opinion actually counts for much – the advertisers.

The evidence is all around us. The number of large advertisers deciding either to ‘do it themselves’ or to use a specialist separated from their mainline media agency is growing; the volume of public statements from both individual advertisers, or from their trade bodies; some would even say the huge number of pitches going on at the moment all connect to a lack of comfort with the online ad business.

The current situation is simply unsustainable. We can all make jokes about drowning in acronyms, about complexity and confusion but the facts are pretty simple.

There are too many middlemen getting in the way between the publisher, who attracts and builds the audience through the variety and quality of the content produced, and the advertiser who wants to reach that audience with his commercial messages.

Furthermore there are too many on the agency side of the fence who could stand to lose financially from any streamlining of the process.

A recent Ebiquity study on behalf of the World Federation of Advertisers (the WFA) estimates the so-called technology tax at around 60%. So – for every 100 spent by the advertiser, 40 finishes up in the titles selected to carry the message.

Those that exist within that gap between advertiser and audience have to add value, or there is no point them being there.

From the advertiser’s perspective: ‘I’m paying 60% for what exactly?’

From the publisher’s perspective: ‘What am I gaining that justifies me giving up 60% of my revenue?’

A combination of publishers, who are suffering with the cost of creating the content that attracts the audiences advertisers want, and advertisers who may not always be that familiar with the mechanics but know that their budgets aren’t ending up where they can do the most good cannot equal a sustainable business model.

And then there are consumers – who are it seems taking the proactive step of downloading adblockers in ever increasing numbers.

Is it the ads they have taken against, or the adtech?

As we’ve said here before, the adtech industry has an issue. At the very same time that the technologists are being driven by their (often ill-informed) backers to drive up one set of meaningless metrics, the very people behind those metrics are voting with their downloads.

The AdContrarian, Bob Hoffman makes this point in an interview with me conducted on behalf of asi, whose November TV and radio audience measurement conference is a must-attend. You can hear Bob’s views here.

So – what to do? Reach more people as measured by a set of metrics no-one believes in (viewability anyone? Fraud? Bots?). Or clean up the industry so that commercial messages within it can be relevant, engaging, and effective?

I hope for the latter, but within a quantitively-driven world in which the likes of Mary Meeker’s ‘money spent should equal time spent’ argument seems to be cherished by so many, I have my doubts.

Setting aside my doubts, and looking on the bright side, what is needed is a more informed application of the technology and the data out there. ‘Informed’ needs to mean ‘informed by serving the advertiser better’, not ‘informed by making a greater margin for my holding company without admitting to any such thing to my advertisers’.

The potential afforded by the whole concept of programmatic trading is exciting. All that data can help create better, more informed plans. If the distance between planner and publisher can be shortened then advertisers and publishers will gain.

The aim must surely be to have plans fully integrated with the buys as opposed to having either process silo-ed and separated from the other.

Planners need to plan, buyers need to buy to plan (and not to some dictat driven by rebates, kick-backs and other margin-enhancers), and the technocrats need to get the pipes to work properly.

All this technology is after all just a tool to enable creativity. It’s not in itself creative. To quote Havas’ Andy Sandoz, incoming President of D&AD we should ‘breathe in technology and breathe out creativity’.