Viewpoint: Time to change

Advertisers have long placed their trust in agencies to make their advertising work for them. Whether it’s the creative geniuses who come up with outlandish ideas that the guys in suits could never have dreamed up, or the media planning stattos who make sure their ads appear in the right places to target the message at the right people, the bond between advertiser and agency has always been a strong one. It may be a herculean task to win a new account, but once you get over that hurdle, if you do the right thing as an agency, you can look forward to a healthy, mutually-beneficial relationship, like the one General Electric has enjoyed with its agency, BBDO, for the past 97 years.

Recently though, there have been signs of trouble in adland. Earlier this year, P&G’s chief brand officer Mark Pritchard took the digital ad industry to task over some of its failings. Speaking at the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting in Hollywood, he said: “The days of giving digital a pass are over. Its time to grow up. Its time for action.”

The marketing chief’s main gripes were transparency, or the lack of it, and viewability, in particular, the plethora of different viewability standards that brands and their agencies are supposed to adhere to. Pritchard was at it again a couple of weeks in Dmexco, telling conference delegates: “The reality is that in 2017, the bloom came off the rose for digital media. The reason: substantial waste in what has become a murky supply chain. As little as 25 per cent of the money we spend in digital media actually makes it to the consumer. With $200bn in spending, it’s frankly time to stop giving digital a pass, and ask it to grow up.”

Last week, trouble erupted again, and this time, it was ad fraud that brought things to a head, as Uber filed a lawsuit against its media agency Fetch Media in San Francisco for fraud, negligence and breach of contract, among other issues.

In the suit, Uber alleges that Fetch spent millions of Uber’s ad dollars on ads that were “nonviewable” by virtue of being so far down the page that few users would scroll that far, or being too small to see. Uber also alleges that Fetch bought ads on websites that didn’t exist.

In short, Uber was paying Fetch to drive downloads of its app, but claims that the ad dollars channelled through Fetch were not responsible for these downloads. For its part, Fetch has said that Uber is effectively using the fraud claims as a smokescreen to avoid paying its invoices, as well as those of partner companies it used to place Uber’s mobile ads.

Who’s telling the truth will be for the courts to decide, but I suspect this won’t be the last time that a brand takes its agency to task, in the courts, for allegedly failing in its duties.

It does make you wonder how seriously the ad networks and media agencies are taking all this stuff. After all, eight months elapsed between Mark Pritchard’s first rallying call to the digital ad industry in January and his second at Dmexco two weeks ago, but no one who heard him speak in Germany would say he sounded particularly pleased with the progress that had been made.

A couple of months after The Times ran its brand safety expose in February, JICWEBS, (The Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards in the UK and Ireland), revealed that 20 companies had signed up to undergo an audit since the article appeared, while 35 companies had achieved JICWEBS certification for brand safety.

Earlier this month, JICWEBS announced that the past month had been the most prolific ever in terms of the number of certificates awarded for Brand Safety, with 11 certificates issued. That took the number of companies who have successfully been reviewed against the Good Practice principles for protecting where brand’s online ads appear to 46. 

Which sounds quite encouraging until you look at the digital marketing lumascape and the 3,000 or so companies in it. Not all are involved in advertising I know, but hundreds of the companies in the lumascape are, and I know from conversations I had in Dmexco that there is growing frustration in many quarters at the industry’s collective failure to get its act together.

Last week, Uber learned the hard way that you can’t just ignore the rules and do things your own sweet way and get away with it, as Transport for London announced that its licence to operate in the capital would not be renewed when it expires at the end of the month.

The digital ad industry may not be under anything like the same sort of regulatory threat, yet, but when big advertisers like P&G’s Mark Pritchard start calling on the industry to clean up its act, and big advertisers like Uber start going legal on their agencies, perhaps it’s time for things to change.