Monday 24 April 2017

Steve Dempsey: The scramble for standards in digital advertising

Are we now entering a phase where businesses are less and less certain of the value that digital advertising offers? (Stock picture)
Are we now entering a phase where businesses are less and less certain of the value that digital advertising offers? (Stock picture)
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

The ISBA, or the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, bills itself as the voice of advertisers in the UK. And it's a voice that sounded pretty tetchy this week at a gathering in London.

Andrew Mortimer, the director of media at Sky, said that advertisers weren't feeling the love for media agencies right now. Mortimer said there was "a vicious circle of mistrust" between media agencies and their clients, and warned that chief executives and CFOs may lose confidence in advertising unless something was done.

Scary stuff coming from the man in charge of the UK's biggest ad budget.

Phil Smith, the ISBA's director general, sounded a slightly different alarm. "I'm hearing a small but growing number of people talking about the need to regulate," he said, "citing the concentration of the media and the agency landscape and also what is seen as a potential threat to the democratic process."

This is fighting talk. And there seems to be more and more of it since Proctor & Gamble's Marc Pritchard gave his honest appraisal of what's gone wrong with advertising. "We serve ads to consumers through a non-transparent media supply chain with spotty compliance to common standards, unreliable measurement, hidden rebates and new inventions like bot and methbot fraud," Pritchard said. Ouch.

So are we now entering a phase where businesses are less and less certain of the value that digital advertising offers? And is there anything the online advertisers can do to win back marketers' hearts?

Well, some attempts are being made. Unsurprisingly, they involve lots of acronym-heavy industry bodies. TAG is short for the Trustworthy Accountability Group. Last week the US industry body announced it would be working with the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards (or JICWEBS) to put manners on the digital advertising supply chain.

TAG was established by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American Association of Advertising Agencies (The 4As, just to be different) and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) in the US. JICWEBS is a UK industry group whose members include the IAB in the UK and our old friends the ISBA. The pan-Atlantic plan is to share knowledge and create consistent standards for online advertising across different markets.

There are some standards, of course. There's the Media Ratings Council (MRC) standards, a general framework that covers ethics and operations, disclosure, electronic delivery and third party processing. Twitter is planning a new way of selling video ads that will adhere to the MRC standards. It's going to offer guaranteed placements of pre-roll video ads, promising brands a minimum number of ad views targeted to specific demographic segments. Plus, a third party will verify video views - another trend that's likely to become more common.

Publishers are also getting in on the act. Last week the 'Financial Times' published a commercial charter that promises strict standards around viewability, non-human traffic, third-party verification, reporting and customer service. Very helpfully, it's also clear about where you can and can't buy ads on FT.com. "We only make FT inventory available programmatically through specific ad exchanges: Google (AdX), Pangaea (Rubicon) and TrustX. If you think you are buying advertising on FT.com elsewhere, it is likely to be fraudulent," it states.

Some agencies also think they'll benefit from adopting clear guidelines. The Seven Stars, the largest independent media agency in the UK, has decided to adopt a framework agency contract, which was proposed by the ISBA last April. The contract promises greater transparency and more detail around issues like click fraud and viewability.

It's interesting to see different elements of the online advertising industry stand to attention when marketers start to voice their concerns. And it's clear that a bit of bolshiness from brands goes a long way. They deserve to know where their money is going and whether it's effectively driving sales, or brand awareness. They also deserve credit for sounding the alarm.

But now the onus is on the rest of the industry to rise to the challenge. First they have to address concerns around viewability, independent verification, ad fraud and value for money. And second, the industry needs to sell itself as a trusted driver of business growth. Any player that can't do that doesn't deserve to spend clients' cash.

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