The five horsemen of the digital apocalypse

The five horsemen of the digital apocalypse

Unsafe, unviewable, fraudulent, blocked and badly targeted… How can advertisers overcome an increasingly challenging digital landscape? By ISBA’s Bob Wootton.

The shiny promises of extreme targeting, high relevance and zero wastage seem to be wearing through to reveal a far less savoury reality in online media. Not a day passes for me without a conversation with a major advertiser about at least one, if not more, of these concerns.

On viewability, I’ve been accused of not being clear enough or leading the charge as I should, so let me set that straight.

I don’t see why any advertiser in their right mind should target anything less than the 100% viewability that all other media offer. (Remember, this is viewability, not viewing. As long as a TV commercial is broadcast, a press ad published or a billboard posted, they are viewable).

To be quite fair to publishers, they do a lot to prevent unsafe ad placements, but the job is never-ending. In an online world where there is plenty of media choice everyone should consider themselves as good only as their last action. Serve an ad in an unsafe place and you should lose the business. Yes, even Facebook. Simples.

Similarly, any publisher or network with any self-respect and calling itself ‘premium’ should undertake unconditionally to repel any fraudulent connection whatsoever (and to cycle any windfall receipts perversely arising straight back into mechanisms to detect and eradicate further fraud).

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I’ve written before on the apparent paradoxes within online. The tensions between rampant claims of pinpoint targeting and relevance jar with the emerging realities of un- or poorly-targeted advertising. Reports of very disappointing targeting, even through some of the companies claiming to lead the field, are now reaching me. I’ll be exploring this further with some vigour anon.

Likewise, the nonsense of retargeted ads stalking people who have already bought stuff. It’s an affront to good advertising practice, old world or new, and tarnishes what’s left of industry’s reputation. It stinks and should stop henceforth. If only.

For several years now, advertisers concerned with these various shortcomings have had to engage and pay themselves for the content verification solutions which surface them.

In the early days, I argued that advertisers should be prepared to fund the exploratory stage and prime the pump for the day when their partners would need to move beyond reassurance and provide proof of viewability, safety, authenticity of inventory, and effective targeting.

I had expected that day to be with us by now, but it isn’t.

So a call out as it’s overdue – I humbly suggest that any media owner looking to enjoy an advertiser’s patronage should now underpin their pitch with the reassurance of mutually-agreed content verification from JICWEBS’ accredited list of providers.

As for ad blocking, we as an industry claim to obsess with ‘listening to the consumer’. But we aren’t.”

All this said, advertisers have an important part to play too. They will have to be tougher and more resolute to drive these necessary changes through. If not, those further along the value chain will continue to make hay. And who can blame them? In these days of ‘minimum viable product’ (really hate that notion), business is business after all.

But lest I appear unreasonable, let me turn to the serious challenges of fraud and ad blocking, much tougher nuts to crack.

I can’t get my head round how fraudulent impressions generated by bots unwittingly installed on millions of users’ devices and which learn and imitate users’ behaviour can be convincingly detected, isolated and removed. So I’m very glad there are many far smarter people than me applying themselves to the challenge and I really hope they get somewhere soon.

And as for ad blocking, we as an industry claim to obsess with ‘listening to the consumer’. But we aren’t. What I’m observing is those same consumers, who do not get up in the morning thinking that they must install an ad blocker, being driven to do so in their millions by our behaviours.

Too many ads, not relevant enough, poorly targeted, using bandwidth-hungry rich media, autoloads and so on are interfering with and slowing the online user experience. And to borrow from my fellow Mediatel columnist Dominic Mills’ recent piece, “if advertisers are pumping out, let’s put it this way, bottom-of-the-funnel shit into dirt-cheap media on an industrial scale, then they’re not going to either afford or bother with better creative”.

No wonder users are installing ad blocker apps which take but two clicks to get up and running. Even worse in mobile, where these ads take over precious screen space and squander people’s data allowances and their battery life – the three biggest issues for them.

Ad blocking is here to stay – indeed, a tech arms race where blockers are blocked by blocker blockers, blocker blockers by blocker blocker blockers, and so on, seems to be in prospect.

I see solutions in two areas:

1. Moderation of the current frenzy to stuff everything full of (sometimes poor) ads, and;

2. Re-establishing an understanding with consumers that their tolerating and sometimes viewing and even acting on the ads funds the content they value and seek.

Hence my rooting for ITV, Channel 4, The Washington Post and any other publisher that declines to serve content to people running ad blockers.

I do, however, think that the right form of words has yet to be found – hopefully one that gets into the public’s consciousness just like “other magazines are available” did when the BBC was required to qualify the promotion of its own titles on its TV channels. Try this…

We’re sorry that we can’t serve you what you’ve asked for.

The content on this site relies on advertising for its funding, but we’ve detected that you might be using some kind of ad blocking software.

We’d much rather deliver your request, so kindly go into your ad blocker’s settings and either disable it or add us to your ‘whitelist’.


It might just be me…

I get invited to a fair number of evening events, many hosted by or for companies that seek a higher profile amongst clients and agencies. Yes, they eat into precious personal time, but they’re usually pretty smart affairs at nice venues with good food and drink, often moderated by a well-qualified table host, where I might get to learn something.

In truth, like all events, some are better than others, the better ones usually reflecting greater attention to detail in their organisation. Things like ambient noise (which hampers effective conversation), number of courses served (the arrival and inevitable ceremonious introduction of each of which interrupts flow).

But what’s really striking me lately is the level of conversation. Dinner used to be a time for some pretty wide-ranging and high-level discussion but these days everybody runs straight for the cover of detail. In my experience, people involved in data are the worst, apparently unable to see the wood for the trees at all and frankly pretty stultifying company.

If they’re the future, it’s going to be a dull one. I thought it might just be me getting long in the tooth, but the more people I talk to about it, the more I realise that (many) others hold the same view.

On the bright side, knowing this at least I’ll get some of my evenings back and maybe even lose a few pounds too.

Bob Wootton is director of media and advertising at ISBA.

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