Magic, Logic and Technology

Disclaimer: BJ&A is a Founder Partner in the Crater Lake Collective, mentioned here

One of the best, and most under-rated publications in the ad industry is a booklet produced under the auspices of three trade bodies – the CIPS (procurement professionals), the IPA (agencies) and the ISBA (advertisers). Written by an outstanding agency planner, Marilyn Baxter it’s called ‘Magic and Logic’.

The best ad campaigns have always combined magic and logic. It is not logical to put a guy dressed as a gorilla behind a drumkit if what you’re doing is selling chocolate, but once you take the mental leap that what you’re selling is self-indulgent pleasure it becomes more understandable.

Over 50 years ago the then BMRB came up with the idea of a large-scale UK survey combining claimed product usage and media consumption. It was called the TGI.

I remember discussing this new-fangled tool with the creative founder of the agency I was in at the time. This is brilliant I said – we can target campaigns at people who use Brand A versus Brand B. His response was telling – you don’t want to take all the magic away from advertising on the back of some numbers.

And yet here we are.

Online advertising offers a number of well-known positives. A huge audience, identifiable down to the individual (in theory), the ability for the audience to respond, immediate feedback, and so on.

These positives are real – but like most things there’s a downside. And in this case the downside is both huge, and largely ignored.

Over the last few days, the grown-ups have it seems noticed what’s been going on.

Reporting at Cannes, the US advertisers’ body the ANA highlighted the high proportion of programmatic impressions (21%) that end up on made-for-advertising sites.

This week the Wall Street Journal highlighted Google’s failure to meet its own standards when placing video ads on third-party channels.

And the ad fraud expert Dr Augustine Fou continued his tireless campaign to make advertisers aware of the extent of fraud in online media. As he says:

“As far back as 2015, AppNexus admitted that 92% of the impressions they sold were fraudulent But none of their customers ever got refunds. Ad fraud has been a 90%+ problem since at least 2015.”

For years media departments in ad agencies and the media agencies that emerged from them rightly promoted media planning and buying as a specialism, much needed in an ever-more complicated world.

Agencies were the experts – they were trusted by their clients to be objective when it came to evaluating new research from media vendors. Over time they’ve ceded ground to the platforms’ ambition to deal direct with advertisers. ‘Give us the budget, we’ll plan it, buy it and evaluate the results for you’. And if you believe that I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

Many advertisers have fallen for this – their erstwhile partners the media agencies have shown themselves to be more interested in deals for themselves than in objectivity. Sadly, an element of trust has been shattered.

Ad fraud is invasive – non-specialists at advertisers are being cheated out of significant portions of their budgets, and don’t know who to turn to for objective advice.

Nobody wants to admit that this problem has arisen on their watch, the agency experts who were once relied upon to give their clients objective advice don’t show any appetite for any real investigation into ad fraud, and so the cycle continues round and round, ever downwards.

For this to end, advertisers have to go back to basics. They advertise after all to achieve something. The ‘something’ has to be an identifiable business benefit. Not reach, not impressions, not media metrics. These things are checkpoints along the way but they’re not in themselves the end goal.

My Crater Lake colleague, David Beaton, from the advanced analytics business NavigationME puts it like this:

“Online media planning and buying suffers from badly aligned incentives combined with poor analytics.

The chase for cheap reach served by agencies using reach and other media metrics as a proxy for business success has led to a perfect storm of waste and fraud on a massive scale.

Unless these incentives are addressed, the waste and fraud will continue.

Bots Don’t Buy is a targeting model and system of measurement designed to plan and buy online media in a way that directly impacts client business outcomes.

There is no reason for the waste to continue; the technology and know-how exists to address it. We just need the will to stop pretending media metrics are the same as business success”.

As an industry we’ve created a system that enriches the fraudsters, encourages the funding of ad tech businesses built on sand (now duly collapsing), emboldens the holding companies to prioritise profit over building their clients’ businesses, legitimises media auditing of the wrong things, and misleads advertisers.

‘Magic and Logic’ was published in 2006. It was optimistic, full of promise for a collaborative, quantifiably measured future between businesses and the agencies that serve them.

We’ve fallen way short.


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