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Of course digital is vital for brand-building (but maybe online ads aren't)

Manning: Of course digital is vital for brand-building (but maybe online ads aren’t)

Online display advertising, especially when automated, has become Frankenstein’s monster.

I had to check my calendar last week when Marketing Week published an article with the headline Has Digital Media reached maturity as a brand-building channel?”

Leaving aside the pedantic point that ‘has’ is singular and ‘media’ is plural, this short question may have set new records for the number of misconceptions in 10 words.

For starters, the use of the singular verb implies that “digital media” is one thing.

Last time I looked, “digital media” includes Search (paid and organic), internet-delivered TV, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Amazon, Snapchat, Pinterest, programmatic out-of-home (OOH), podcasts and many more options, most of which reached maturity several years ago in their ability to help build and grow brands.

For example, pay-per-click Search has been part of the marketing armoury for two decades and has always been part of the brand-building process, taking people through to brand websites and often a sale. Buying a brand is surely part of building it, acting as a portal to other customer communications, such as e-mail, a daily part of anyone’s diet if you’ve ever shopped online (and who hasn’t?)

TV is now largely digitally delivered. It remains the strongest brand-building channel, and some of the pure-play online platforms such as YouTube can be part of a successful mix of “AV” options, building brand awareness, if controlled well (and that is a big “if”).

Outdoor is now largely digital and has been building brands longer than anything else.

There is no longer any sensible separation between “digital” and “non-digital” media, and there hasn’t been for years, but some of the ad industry vernacular has not kept up with the reality of people’s experience. Brands are built in people’s minds and lives by many experiences, of which advertising is one and could potentially become much less important given the multiplicity of problems in online advertising.

Yet some people talk about “brand” and “performance” as separate things. Any good communications strategy should start with integrated creative effectiveness across a range of the channels that play a role in consumers’ lives and the “customer journey”. Purchase funnels are influenced by many factors, with recommendation engines, comparison websites and influencers increasingly a factor.

The different channels work differently but they all help contribute to building brands. Much of the art of marketing is identifying the range of influences and how to use them, and the growth of omnichannel Retail Media Networks is evidence of a roulette wheel mindset, spreading bets in a world where people’s behaviour is highly varied.

However, of course not all digital channels are equally influential. Is the real Marketing Week question, “Has Online Display Advertising reached maturity as a brand-building channel?”

Based on the evidence of the last couple of weeks alone, the answer is surely “not yet and maybe never”.

Negligence or ignorance?

Many digital forests have been metaphorically felled in chronicling the deficiencies of online display advertising, including several industry-level studies. The latest of these is the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) Programmatic Media Supply-Chain Transparency Study, a worthy successor to ISBA’s two in-depth versions.

The ANA study shows that the amount of money going into Made-for-Advertising (MFA) sites is growing, a disturbing trend given that they are one of the most opaque and potentially wasteful places to advertise, with real brand safety risks.

Manning: The ANA’s media transparency redux and the need for more honesty

The report also shows that the average US online open web display campaign runs on about 44,000 websites, similar to the findings of the Isba/PWC study in the UK. That’s an unmanageable number.

Last month, a study by Adalytics exposed the apparent truth behind Google’s use of third parties for its YouTube TrueView video service, and found that 80% of ads for 1,100 brands tracked on Google’s video partner network between 2020 and 2023 did not conform with Google’s own definition of ad exposure that triggers the payment for the ads.

Google has denied wrongdoing. But if people at Google knew, they weren’t saying anything. If they didn’t know, how come? Negligence or ignorance?

Further analysis by Check My Ads of the Adalytics research shows that Google allowed ads to run on sites where government sanctions apply, such as Russia Today and Pravda. Negligence or ignorance?

This is further proof that the system is out of control. The erstwhile guardians of media governance, primarily the media agencies, cannot tell (and don’t tell) where thousands of their clients’ ads are being displayed, nor whether anyone real saw them, nor if anyone cared. It took Adalytics, not an agency group, to uncover the TrueView issues.

Big problems exist in Connected TV. Dave Morgan of Simulmedia tells it like it is.

And, as Tom Roach observed in Marketing Week “…the platforms dominating global advertising today aren’t yet, and perhaps never will be, as good as the previously dominant channels at helping build our brands”. Indeed.

To add to the woes of online advertising, MIT Technology Review contained a study by NewsGuard that chatbots are being programmed to fill “junk” websites with AI-generated text that is carrying ads from over 140 major brands, 90% of which were served by Google even though their policies prohibit such sites.

The bad guys will use AI for nefarious means long before the responsible use it for good. They are not constrained by ethics or regulation.

The arrival of AI as a content-generation technology on steroids may be good news in the longer-term but scammers are already using it to spoof the public with criminal bitcoin ads (already rife before), plumbing new depths by using deepfakes to misrepresent celebrities and AI-fed fake obituaries for live celebrities to ensnare the public.

Note the above Evening Standard link has a huge amount of MFA below it. The irony.

No wonder our industry has lost the faith of the people it aims to attract

Is any of this new? The deepfake might be but the issue is a number of years old and still no action has been taken. This is a major black mark for the ad industry and especially Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and anywhere else that ads have led to people being swindled.

The big platforms have failed to stop the flow of scam ads for many years; it seems their much-vaunted technology can’t prevent scammers or maybe it’s just seen as ad revenue, leaving the site’s users free to decide whether to lose their life savings to the crooks.

This, sadly, is still advertising and is seen as such by the public. No wonder our industry has lost the faith of the people it aims to attract.

The message is clear; online display advertising, especially when automated, has become Dr Frankenstein’s monster, spraying ads around the internet, damaging people’s trust in advertising, risking brand care and sucking up over 50% of advertisers’ budgets and making fraudsters rich.

The bodies that represent the ad industry seem curiously quiet on these points, and comment from senior media agency leaders is virtually absent. The advertiser associations valiantly play the role of Sisyphus (without the dodgy backstory).

Now, with the bankruptcy of MediaMath, there is even less plurality in the market with the strong getting stronger, leaving little room for newcomers who want to improve the industry.

Several creditors are down many millions of dollars and might be tempted to plug the loss in ways that make matters worse.

New wastage

For online advertising to play its part alongside other digital channels, it needs to do what all media should do. Deliver great effective content to the most appropriate audience at scale with sufficient engagement to influence public behaviour.

At the moment it tries to do this by reaching audiences one at a time on thousands of sites in the pursuit of the unicorn called “mass personalisation”.

When so much of online advertising is unseen and unheard at any sensible level of exposure and there is so much invalid and fraudulent traffic and so little control exercised over the “spray and pray” machines (that were supposed to deliver personalisation), how can online display advertising help build brands?

Other digital channels have their role, of course, but they don’t exist in isolation. There can surely be no doubt that fame (call it favourability with familiarity) is still the most effective way to build brands, and open public and shared exposure is key to this.

Some digital channels (yes, TV and Outdoor) are adept at this, especially supported by other digital channels that provide more direct engagement.

Personalisation was supposed to cut out “wastage”. The new wastage is advertising that swallows up half the advertisers’ budgets before ads are served that are of minimal or no effect.

And, as Laurence Green recently pointed out in a letter to the Financial Times, one of Jeremy Bullmore’s epithets is spot-on. What people call “wastage” in mass media is simply the cost of making brands famous. It is, after all, How Brands Grow.

Some digital channels have been helping build brands for the last 20 years, playing a vital role in leading people to brands via a range of channels that perform different functions.

However, if the Marketing Week article really meant “Has Online Display Advertising reached maturity as a brand-building channel?”, then the short answer is that it hasn’t really yet begun and won’t do so until the industry starts taking notice of all of the evidence of dysfunctionality that has been piling up for years.

A good start would be for the industry’s most prominent people to publicly acknowledge the issues we face and aim to do something about them. Another kind of honesty, if you will.

Maybe this is a forlorn hope, but with so much evidence of the issues the ad industry faces, we might be a little more optimistic that wiser and less commercially-biased heads may prevail.

Nick Manning is the co-founder of Manning Gottlieb Media (now MGOMD) and was CSO at Ebiquity for over a decade. He now owns a mentoring business, Encyclomedia, offering strategic advice to companies in the media and advertising industry, and is non-executive chair of Media Marketing Compliance. He writes for The Media Leader each month — read his column here.

Dan Gee, Global Lead, WeTransfer Advertising, on 19 Jul 2023
“Where such a large proportion of online display is a veritable (should that be verifiable) cesspool of underwhelming mini rectangles, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that ALL online display is equally disappointing. For 13 years WeTransfer has been swimming against this effluent stream, providing high quality, high impact advertising that respects the user experience, and relies on being genuinely engaging to enter the conscious and sub-conscious of our user base. No mass-personlisation, just unmissable ads delivered in a way that won't piss people off. I know that it's hard a model to replicate. Not all publishers and platforms can give over near full screen real estate while meeting the needs of the audience's visit in the process. But the principles should hold value for online publishers looking to future proof against increasing scrutiny of the open marketplace and programmatic eco-system at large. Respect the user, focus on outcomes over metrics, and hold to a higher standard of advertising. We've started accepting a low bar of good when 'thumb-stopping' is a highly desirable characteristic. Beyond our own house, Bloomberg's recent pivot is an interesting case in point, and it will be interesting to see if the higher CPMs that have resulted from their move away from 3rd party programmatic money, result in higher revenues overall. It will almost certainly result in happier advertisers....”

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