The Transparency Hangover

Brand Aware” explores the data-driven digital ad ecosystem from the marketer’s point of view.

Today’s column is written by Belinda J. Smith, global director of media activation at Electronic Arts

Spurred by the groundbreaking ANA K2 report, marketers spent the latter half of 2016 and much of 2017 talking about transparency.

We went from pushing our agencies to disclose absolutely everything to understanding that buying platforms had their own “black box” issues. We screamed at the social platforms and walled gardens to open up to third-party inspectors, ordered programmatic vendors to disclose fees and demanded publishers tell us how they acquire traffic and exactly what inventory we are running on.

And, to a large extent, it worked.

We got to the bottom of many mysteries and had productive discussions about how to better understand our media, partners, investments and performance. We sharply reduced waste by optimizing against nonhuman traffic, nonviewable inventory and spoofed domains. We coalesced around standards-based solutions such as Ads.txt, MRC accreditation and TAG certification. Prayers answered!

But far from feeling satisfied, many marketers are suffering from a case of “Be careful what you wish for.” Drunk for so long off cheap, seemingly efficient digital media, we’re now suffering through the morning-after hangover.

The results were not real. One downside of the cleanup is accepting that many of the positive results we previously enjoyed and trumpeted internally in our marketing organizations were not real. The low-cost clicks and views we purchased were not from humans. The installs we bought in bulk were not valuable to our brands. The 10,000 video views we used to deliver on a small budget has now shrunk to 400. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

Programmatic is not cheap. Carrying that thought one step further brings us to this: Quality does not come cheap. Many of us carried the banner of programmatic to our organizations as an exercise in cost savings, efficiency or following the recommendation of media-mix models that favor low-cost inventory. We are now tasked with helping our teams understand why programmatic isn’t cheap and what that means for how we should value and activate it.

Old media is not dead. Ironically enough, the pricing walk-back brings traditional media back into the discussion. In the age of the $3 video CPM, it was easy to dismiss out-of-home, linear TV and print as irrelevant. But now that cheap video inventory has been exposed for what it is – a tiny player that initiates your creative on page load, behind five other stacked assets – it’s time to reassess the old channels we put out to pasture.

If digital video CPMs are 10 times more than we previously thought, do we still think TV is expensive? Does a beautifully designed print ad that we can see and feel and validate not have impact? Can we get the scale we need in digital alone once we cut out the bad stuff? With complexity in digital on the rise and prices for quality rising even faster, many of us will take a new look at evaluating them next to their broadcast and print brethren.

The good news

While our hard-won transparency has come with some inconvenient truths, we must stay the course and continue to shine light in the dark corners. Understanding that creating quality digital marketing programs is not as cheap or as easy as we thought, we now get to roll up our sleeves and do the exciting marketing work that is core to our brands.

There is no cheap channel. There is no set it and forget it. Let’s spend some time reconnecting with the art of our craft and creating those immersive experiences that are channel-agnostic and actually matter to our customers.

The best thing about a hangover? It’s temporary.

Follow Belinda J. Smith (@BJStech), Electronic Arts (@EA) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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  1. Great examples. Once you decide to make the measurements–and as marketers we can measure a lot more than we might think, even in digital–the old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it is” is confirmed once again.

  2. Great article and points, especially “Programmatic Is Not Cheap”. As we move into a transparent world, the focus really needs to shift from scale (aka cheap) to precision and quality. At this point, if the CPMs seem too good to be true, they probably are.