For those that have been watching the move to digital for decades, it’s often hard to appreciate how much transformation is still going on. We’re literally writing history and building the future of digital media every day. The value to consumers coming from the technology, automation and innovation does not cease to astound.
DCN continues to point out that the humans setting the rules also need to keep up with the pace of change. I’m not talking about the ones on Capitol Hill but rather the leaders and the decision-makers in the media and tech companies and their self-regulation bodies. We must show a higher set of ethics and concern for the industry and its future. I’ve been pleased to see that in the past year we’ve elevated the discussion: Thought-leaders as varied as Om Malik, Tim Berners-Lee, John Battelle, Fatemeh Khatibloo, Andrew Keen, Tony Haile and countless others have taken on the types of issues that will help pave the way for the content and services that consumers trust and love.
However, more must be done. I have not yet seen the market step up with real solutions to the problems. There are few companies, not to mention leaders, joining me in calling out the issues and pushing for meaningful change.
As the leader of a trade association, I hear I’m not supposed to rattle too many cages. But I see my role as one that guides a transformation in the economics so that that we can continue to fund the content that consumers love to view, share and interact with for the long term. This means calling out issues and uncomfortable discussions that, at times, involve our own members. Perhaps my role is to also change the nature of a trade association in an accelerated world (or maybe this is a fast exit to the early retirement door). Regardless, promising young content sites like Vox, Refinery29 and Quartz, as well as brands that have been around for decades, are creating high-quality, trusted experiences for consumers and advertisers—each in their own unique and innovative ways. I want these businesses to absolutely crush it and be around for a long time to come.
To get there, we need to see more leaders make bold statements like Tim Cook’s last week: “I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be.”
Tim Cook’s call to arms should create opportunity, not fear. An op-ed in Al-Jazeera America said it best: “As an undisputed leader among Internet companies, Google could seize the opportunity to be not just used, but trusted. All it takes is a single, clear commitment not to use our data against us. By invoking established principles of agency and loyalty, Google could assure users that their interest comes first, and advertisers won’t use all that data at the expense of consumers. Anything less just looks like whitewash.”
We need more leaders to step up. Enough hand wringing and talking about the problems, let’s see some real change. Across each of the key issues we’ve surfaced this year, there have been countless opportunities for companies and leadership to step up and take bold action to make a difference. For now, I’ll just highlight the most egregious misses in my mind.
Bombs have been dropping regarding the level of digital advertising being served to “bots” rather than humans. As with many issues, the industry has been slow to react. The first year was spent deciding whether to call them bots, invalid traffic, non-human traffic, or God-forbid: “fraud.” All the while, Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), has dutifully led the charge calling out the fact this cancer is “funding criminal activity” and we need “a true call to action to stop this.” I completely agree.
Yet I was shocked last week by a fact discussed on an industry panel: An estimated 18% of “bot” traffic comes from data centers according to the seminal report on non-human traffic that was produced by the ANA and White Ops (page 26). As Michael Tiffany, CEO of White Ops, stated, “I think that successful botnets doing ad fraud today out of data center IP addresses is obscene.” That’s the right word for it.
For the less technical readers, there are very few instances in which human traffic would be coming from a data center such as AWS (Amazon Web Services). Independent researcher, Augustine Fou, breaks down the problem quite well. And Distil Networks also published a bot report (p. 6) last month that shows a number of hosting companies in the list of top sources of bot traffic.
Tiffany said it best when discussing how the industry can approach solutions: “Are we going to do the least to placate the audience while upsetting the status quo the least? Or are we going to take the steps that really direct those dollars in a big macro way which means changing some of today’s winners into losers and vice versa.”
Opportunity to Step Up: The dozens of ad networks and exchanges currently thriving in the programmatic space. The buyers and their trade groups should absolutely demand that all ad exchanges, ad servers, networks and 3rd party sellers of inventory block data center IP traffic to ads or, better still, those ad networks should simply step up and block data center IP traffic now.
We have already surpassed 200 million instances of ad blocking software installed. I’ve heard of DCN member sites with as low as 10% of their ads being blocked to as frighteningly high as 80%. As I wrote back in March, this is a massive issue. It’s not going away and it’s only going to get worse without real change. TechCrunch covered the issue in depth last week and, like us, connected the dots to privacy.
Opportunity to Step Up: Google. Yes, Google has the number one browser on the planet. They also have the most installations of ad blocking software. (Note: this could quickly change, and not for the better, with iOS announcing APIs for ad blockers on Monday.)
But according to the Financial Times, rather than initiating cross-industry discussion and action about the issue, Google instead chose to negotiate a deal in a dark room with Adblock Plus to whitelist their text ads across the entire web thereby ridding them of most of the problem. We’ve got to rebuild consumer trust in advertising so consumers won’t take steps to block all ads. Over the long term, that probably means less bottom of the barrel direct response retargeting ads and more brand campaigns that excite and engage with consumers.
It’s no secret that much of the digital media industry is still finding its way through the wilderness as we move to the viewable currency. The current standard is clearly defined by the independent Media Ratings Council (MRC) is that a minimum of 50% of the pixels of an ad must be displayed for a minimum of one second. Any deviation from the standard causes confusion in the marketplace. Most premium publishers agree with their agency and advertising partners that a move to a viewable impression is a good thing. The process of getting there so that the additional value of a viewable impression is realized has been difficult. Calls for engagement beyond the minimum opportunity to see have been frustrating, but to me Facebook is much more worrisome.
Opportunity to step up: Facebook. Right now, Facebook lives in another world where a single pixel viewed for any amount of time counts as a viewable impression. As John Montgomery of GroupM also recently pointed out, Facebook also chooses to measure its own ads rather than allowing third-parties to verify like the rest of the media world. Facebook should join the rest of the industry in following the MRC standard and allowing third-parties to verify that they do. Interestingly, Facebook used protecting consumers’ privacy as their excuse for hiding from third party verification which brings me to…
Opportunity to step up: Facebook. Needless to say I found myself shaking my head at a recent publisher event where sites were discussing how they could block Facebook from tracking their users. How on earth did this become a responsibility of the publisher to hack together a short-term solution?
Facebook could solve this in a matter of minutes. They already share code with most of the web to add the Like button to their sites. By simply adding a parameter to turn off “tracking”, any publisher could ask Facebook to not track its users across the web and apps. Facebook, do this:
<div class=”fb-like” data-href=”https://developers.facebook.com/docs/plugins/” data-layout=”standard” data-action=”like” data-show-faces=”true” data-share=”true” tracking=”off”></div>
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will likely release more guidance this year on native advertising. It’s unfortunate to me that the bar isn’t being raised across the industry ahead of their intervention. I still see way too many instances of “You may also like this” rather than a clear label of advertising. Last week, Mike Zaneis at the IAB once again called out that this wasn’t likely to be enough. However, most premium publishers are clearly labeling as Michael Sebastian wrote today on Ad Age.
Opportunity to step up: Facebook wins again. Ruthlessly weed out clearly deceptive advertising. It pained me to receive this ad the other day falsely labelled as content from ESPN that actually linked to this site. This goes beyond simple deception and is a clear violation of all sorts of intellectual property issues.
These are just a few of the issues where organizations have the opportunity to do more than form task forces that spend months merely discussing and defining rather than doing. Tim Cook has it right. We don’t want to be the kind of industry people can’t trust. Our businesses and brands are built on trusted relationships with consumers and advertisers. These relationships crumble without trust that the media will deliver what the consumer or advertise expects. We need some heavy hitters to get in the game and turn it around. The future of the industry depends on it.