Imagine this: A newspaper publisher decides that the easiest and cheapest way to increase his circulation, and thus his readership and ultimately his advertising revenue, is to dump large numbers of his publication in convenient local rubbish bins. He reckons that no-one will care -- as at the end of the day the buyers only buy gross numbers and can’t be bothered to look into how they’re made up. Furthermore, by the time anyone works out that advertising in his title isn’t working he’ll be over the hills and far away.
But our publisher gets a shock! He discovers that even the media buyers of the time aren’t falling for that one. So he changes tack and gives away thousands of copies of his paid-for publication for free to the likes of airports, airlines and train operators.
Again, the buyers are on to him. Under pressure from the advertising business, both the agencies and their clients, the trade body responsible for measuring circulation tightens up their definitions, weeds out the numbers obviously dumped in bulk and separates paid circulation from bona fide free distribution.
Now imagine this: Someone comes up with a superficially attractive website, and rather than go through all the hard work and agonizing that comes with building a loyal audience, he decides to “buy” impressions in bulk. He really doesn’t care whether these impressions are generated by real people, in click farms being paid for the number of clicks they deliver, or automated so-called robots.
This person also reckons that no-one will care -- as at the end of the day the buyers only buy gross numbers and can’t be bothered to look into how they’re made up.
And of course he’s right.
What’s the difference between these two scenarios (beyond about 30 years)? In the first, the buyer feels duty bound to act in the best interests of his client, whereas in the second the buyer is in on the game. He has worked out how he too can make money out of this trickery. Furthermore, he argues that there are now so many “buyers,” so many middlemen between the source of the budget (aka the advertiser) and the provider of the content (aka the publisher) that there really is no point in upsetting the apple cart.
And advertisers? Well, most advertisers don’t know, don’t understand and by and large don’t care. Or so the theory goes.
There are, however, changes afoot. Several very large advertisers have decided either to buy their own digital space (Procter and Gamble in the USA) or to refuse the blandishments of the large holding company trading desks (Unilever, American Express, Kimberly Clarke, Nestle, Kellogg’s, Ford and so on). I learnt very early on that if you want to spot the way the business is going watch for what the likes of Procter and Unilever do. They are copied by many.
At the same time, many irritating bloggers and commentators are making sure that the sense that the buying of digital advertising is in some way dodgy is becoming well-known. As one global digital CEO in an agency put it the other day (although in a different context) “the ink is in the water.”
There is though one more tipping point to be reached. That will arrive when the first client of a large holding company not only decides to resist the lure of the holding company’s trading desk but gets so thoroughly disenchanted and annoyed by the lack of transparency and basic honesty on show that he fires the holding company’s media planning agency, creative agency and every other agency owned by the offending holding company and goes instead for a different approach, maybe even going down the bespoke, independent route.
After all -- if one part of the offending holding organization doesn’t believe in acting in his (the client’s) best interests then who knows how far that culture has spread? Better to place all of his eggs in multiple baskets and manage the process himself.
The first time that a client does that, or picks up the phone to one of Messrs Levy, Roth, Wren, Sorrell or Bollore to warn them that this is on the cards will mark the beginning of the end of this digital bean feast and the start of a new era of true collaboration.
Brian Jacobs spent over 35 years in advertising, media and research agencies including spells at Leo Burnett (UK, EMEA, International Media Director), Carat International (Managing Director), Universal McCann (EMEA Director) and Millward Brown (EVP, Global Media). He has worked in the UK, EMEA and globally out of the USA. His experience covers shifts from full-service ad agencies to media agencies; from traditional single-commercial-channel TV to multi-faceted digital channels; and from media planning to multi-disciplinary communication planning. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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