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Brands are stepping up their media governance

August 23, 2017 | By Tim Bourgeois, Partner—East Coast Catalyst @ChiefDigOfficer

It was just a matter of time – we all knew it had to happen eventually – but the other shoe is dropping on digital advertising’s most glaring weaknesses: accountability and fraud. Brands are taking steps to exert more control over growing online advertising budgets, and rely less on external agencies to do the job.

This is according to a new survey from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) of 35 global companies with more than $30 billion in ad spend. To wit: nearly 9-of-10 say they are pulling back spending in ad networks that don’t allow third party verification, and three quarters of them say transparency is an “escalating” issue.

Though short of revolutionary, these survey findings indicate a meaningful attitudinal shift among brands: now more comfortable with the digital channel, and under pressure from CFOs and CEOs to get waste under control, they’re putting pressure on the source – the media buying function.

Former Mediacom CEO Joe Mandel set this process in motion back in March of 2015 at an Association of National Advertisers meeting when he declared: “I personally believe we’re living through the least transparent time for the media industry in our careers”. Fast forward to May of this year, when WFA’s survey was conducted, and we’re beginning to see empirical evidence of the backlash.

What this means for different constituents in the digital marketing ecosystem:

  • Whenever there’s talk of “digital media” in general, it’s important to remember that Google and Facebook comprise 70%+ of the activity. So evolving media buying practices are largely targeted at getting Google- and Facebook-enabled advertising under control.
  • These media buying shifts are significant, especially in light of the TV, radio, and print channels over the second half of 20th century, which were remarkably stable; it tooks brands awhile to respond to fraud and viewability issues because they hadn’t really had to deal with media buying challenges since the introduction of TV advertising in the 1950s.
  • As brands get more comfortable with theirs hands on the online media buying controls, new opportunities will emerge for channels beyond Google and Facebook. Nearly half of respondents in the survey indicate they are shifting away from using CPM as the key pricing metric, and this favors niche players and premium brands.
  • Agencies have been bracing for this market shift for years, and have been aggressively investing in their technology infrastructures and talent pools as a way to prepare. (See WPP’s list of investments on Crunchbase.) As is the case with brands, agencies are maneuvering to become less reliant on Google and Facebook, and those that haven’t are vulnerable and risk obsolescence.
  • Peripheral players in the ecosystem – lawyers, auditors, verification companies and watchdog groups – are boosted by these findings. Almost 90% of survey respondents said they already have or are planning to include “specific media/financial audit right clauses” in contracts, suggesting that brands are putting agencies on notice, and plan to keep a closer eye on activity moving forward.

Given that digital will soon account for nearly half of all advertising spending – and was barely its own unique line item as recently as 2000 – brands are smart to be re-thinking their approaches to online media buying. Indeed, many industry experts will credibly claim that these changes are long overdue. Regardless, the trends signal an interesting new chapter in digital marketing, where opportunities will emerge for organizations – brands, agencies, and publishers alike – that evolve to accommodate changing marketplace demands.


Tim Bourgeois (@ChiefDigOfficer) is a partner at East Coast Catalyst, a Boston-based digital consulting company specializing in strategic roadmaps, digital marketing audits, and online marketing optimization programs.

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