Zuckerberg unscathed

Zuckerberg unscathed

The only tangible outcome of what was supposed to be a searing examination in Congress of Facebook was a 5% rise in the company’s share price, laments Raymond Snoddy. At least the Lords are right on the money…

Senate hearings or Parliamentary Select committees are the most imperfect form of interrogation ever invented and usually fail to live up to their billings even as theatre.

The problem is revealed in the name – committee.

Ten or a dozen public representatives, with limited knowledge of the subject they are investigating, stumble their way through the blindingly obvious, leaving the real questions either unasked or certainly unanswered.

So it was that the deeply unimpressive Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, with very serious issues to deal with, emerged unscathed from his Senate hearing and some of the daft questions were hit out of the ground.

The Senators scarcely managed to lay a glove on Zuckerberg and the only tangible outcome of what was meant to be a searing examination of Facebook and all its works was a 5 per cent rise in the company’s share price.

By apologising – as he always does – and displaying a lack of detailed knowledge about the operation of his company, equally par for the course, Zuckerberg emerged from his dead sheep mauling more than £2 billion pounds richer.

Not bad for two hours work.

One aged Senator asked how Facebook made its money when it didn’t charge. Errr, advertising, Zuckerberg replied.

Even Senator John Kennedy made a fool of himself by demanding a series of rights over his Facebook data that Zuckerberg was able to brush off by insisting that all such rights existed already.[advert position=”left”]

The only shadow of a concession, if concession it was, came from a suggestion that Facebook might, just might, be prepared to accept a greater degree of regulation although what that means, if it means anything at all, remains a mystery.

The problem with committee interrogation is that the questions can be random and unfocused as everyone tries to get their turn and rarely lead to any meaningful conclusions.

Unsurprisingly, Zuckerberg’s performance attracted the headlines and almost eclipsed a report from the House of Lords Communications Committee on advertising in a digital age.

The great strength of the easily mocked House of Lords is that among the superannuated politicians turning up for their attendance fees are people who really know what they are talking about.

In this case they include Lord Allan of Granada – Charles Allan as was – and Lord Jimmy Gordon of Radio Clyde.

Whatever the composition, the committee has produced a telling report that highlights the importance of the UK as a global hub for advertising that contributed £120 billion and supported more than 1 million jobs in 2016.

The report also called for the creation of a creative industries’ freelance visa to allow easy movement of EU nationals with specialist skills to the UK. The film and television industries have also been pressing for such a visa.

The slight problem, at least for hard Brexit fans, is that so many industries are likely to ask for special visas – a vegetable picking visa cannot be far away – that it could add up, collectively, to something close to what we have now: free movement of people.

Rather more centrally the Lords Committee has called unambiguously for the competition watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, to undertake a study of the digital advertising market to ensure “it is working fairly for business and consumers.”

As Lord Gilbert of Panteg, who chaired the Committee, put it: digital advertising to consumers was notoriously murky.

“Businesses which buy advertising services don’t know how their money is being spent, whether their advertising is being displayed next to content which is obscene or which supports terrorism, or whether their ads are being viewed by human beings at all,” Lord Gilbert said.

Curiously, both the Advertising Association and ISBA must have independently missed that bit of the report.

Both emphasised the importance of the industry and the need for more self-regulation and better labelling of online advertising but failed to acknowledge – either way – the Committee’s most important recommendation – the call for the CMA to intervene.

There is, of course, a problem with the Committee’s recommendation. The CMA has previously decided that on “preliminary consideration” it had not found any detriment to consumers.

Perhaps it’s time the CMA looked again. The 87 million consumers who had their data made available to Cambridge Analytica might beg to disagree, and detriment caused by poor functioning of markets can be suffered by companies and advertisers not just consumers.

Ask Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble or Keith Weed of Unilever, or media groups, which see two thirds of the value of their advertising disappear, as if a latter day Paul Daniels was waving a wand over the transaction.

The real reason for the CMA’s reluctance to investigate is a claimed lack of resources. The Communications committee urges the Government to make sure the CMA has the resources necessary to undertake such a study.

The Government wouldn’t want to leave the responsibility for such an important task to the EU post Brexit would it?

If the CMA needs any further convincing it should talk to Simon Redican, chief executive of PAMCo, the Publisher Audience Measurement Company about an intervention he made at the recent Shift conference organised by Newsworks.

Redican, in a consciously naïve question, wanted to know why it was that despite “furious agreement” at conference after conference on the importance of context, brand safety, return on investment and engagement, the behaviour of media agencies didn’t seem to change.

And on top of that there are the growing issues of privacy over data – yet still their love affair with programmatic and Facebook, YouTube and Twitter continues unabated.

Redican later explained in an interview that if, in the face of the mounting evidence in favour of “the proven media” and against the short-termism of programmatic digital nothing changed, then there was “something more going on than spending marketing investment where it should be spent.”

The PAMCo chief executive was too polite to expand on what exactly he meant but we can probably hazard a guess.

Could it be that working out the subtleties of context, engagement, brand safety and transparency in “the proven media” is just a bit too difficult compared with whacking everything through programmatic?

And could it be that programmatic is simply more profitable to agencies whether it serves the long-term brand-building of their customers or not?

It would surely be valuable if the CMA was able to answer those questions alone, and they would certainly be in a better position to get to the bottom of pressing issues in the digital marketplace than the pussycats of the US Senate who left Mark Zuckerberg unscathed yet again.

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