Viewpoint: A Happy New Year for digital advertising? Well see

If 2017 is remembered for anything in digital marketing, I think most pundits would agree it will be the bad stuff rather than the good.

Yes, there have been some great campaigns, many of which we celebrated when we handed out the trophies in our Effective Mobile Marketing Awards a few weeks ago. But unless you’ve spent the year on another planet, you can’t fail to have noticed the bad press and the fallout over transparency, brand safety, ad fraud, viewability and ad blocking.

Talking with a friend just last night, he said he’d heard something on the radio about data being the new big thing in advertising, usurping creativity, and asked me if this was the case. Cue a 5-minute stream of consciousness from me about the original promise of programmatic, automated buying, less about the publication, site or the app where the ad appeared, more about the fact that it hit the person you were trying to hit, wherever they happened to find themselves in the online world.

The problems this has led to in terms of ads being served alongside content the advertisers in question would never want to be seen close to. How brands had voted with their feet and demanded that YouTube and Facebook spend more of the money they make from advertising, on human beings and tech to vet the content on their sites.

Rallying call
The issues around transparency have been well voiced this year by P&G’s Marc Pritchard initially, with others echoing his rallying call for the industry to be more open about how much of the advertiser’s media budget ends up being spent on media, and how much goes to the middlemen, the DSPs, the DMPs, the SSPs, the trading desks, the agencies.

A lot of this may well be legitimate. You can’t expect the 5,000-odd companies in the martech lumascape to do their stuff and add some value without being paid for it after all. The problem is, advertisers have not been kept sufficiently informed as to where their ad budgets are going.

The Guardian’s programmatic account director Emma-Louise Wagstaff laid it bare at an event a few weeks ago when she explained how, in the pre-programmatic era, if an advertiser had a media budget of £10, £8.50 of it would go to the publication where their ad appeared, with the agency that booked the space taking the traditional 15 per cent (£1.50) cut. In the programmatic age, with all the other actors inserted, only £3 out of the £10 typically goes to the publisher for the media space. Others I have spoke to since thought the Guardian was ahead of the game if it was taking £3 from every £10 ostensibly spent on media.

On ad fraud, the numbers are equally well reported and shockingly large. Just a couple of weeks ago, ad tech firm Adform revealed that a bot network called Hyphbot has been generating fake traffic on over 34,000 domains, to the tune of 1.5bn daily requests, raking in as much as $1.3m (£1m) in a single day, according to Adform’s estimates.

And while ad blocking numbers seem to have stabilised at around the 20 per cent mark, that’s still a large figure, and many feel it’s only a matter of time before the passion that consumers in Asia-Pacific show for mobile ad blocking spreads to the western world.

100 per cent transparency
On a brighter note, there are signs that things are starting to change. On transparency, the spending power of holding companies like P&G should be enough to convince agencies that they need to change. And indeed, last month saw the launch of Truth, an agency with transparency at its core. At launch, Truth said it would be the first media agency in the world to use blockchain smart contract technology to provide advertisers with 100 per cent transparency.

On fraud, the last few months have seen a flurry of partnerships between different parts of the ad tech ecosystem aimed at reducing, if not completely eliminating, the levels of fraud being perpetrated in the digital ad industry.

And in October, the IAB launched its Gold Standard initiative for digital advertising with a joint letter from 23 companies, including Google and Facebook, publicly committing to reduce ad fraud by implementing the ads.txt initiative on all sites carrying ads; to adhere to the LEAN (Light, Encrypted, Ad Choice-supported, Non-invasive) principles and the Coalition for Better Advertising standards, and to stop selling any of the 12 ‘bad’ ad units identified by the Coalition as ad units that consumers don’t like; and to increase brand safety by working with JICWEBS with a view to becoming DTSG (Digital Trading Standards Group) certified or maintaining certification.

All of these initiatives are to welcomed, but none will save the digital ad industry if they are not taken as seriously as they need to be by all involved. Not everyone I speak to is convinced they will. 2018 is the ad industry’s opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.