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Power, responsibility...and Facebook

03 Oct 2016  |  Dominic Mills 
Power, responsibility...and Facebook

In the wake of extraordinary revelations over inflated video views, Dominic Mills asks what on earth it will take for the social media giant to play fair with advertisers' money

In theory, as organisations and people become more powerful, so they are expected to acquire the trappings of responsibility. Except this doesn't seem to be the case with Facebook (and we wait to see whether this applies to Donald Trump too).

Along with Google, Facebook is now among the most powerful media organisations on the planet. But the concept of responsibility seems entirely alien to it. This may be because it doesn't define itself as a media owner - hence its cavalier attitude to 'fake news' and the content it distributes to hundreds of millions of users. Its view seems to be that it has no responsibility to its users.

I think there's also a significant amount of digital hubris here, to which all digital pure-play media owners are prone, and the bigger they are the more they believe it. The core mantra the digirati sign up to is that they are completely accountable - the data in and of itself is transparent, universal and all-conquering - and therefore two things flow from this: one, that by definition digital pure-plays are open and transparent; and two, they owe no responsibility to anyone other than themselves, regardless of how much advertising money they take.

And so we come to the case, reported 10 days ago by the Wall Street Journal, about Facebook's erroneous inflation of its video viewing time over a two-year period by between 60 and 80 per cent.

So on one level, Facebook has already been proved to have feet of clay. The data wasn't just wrong, it wasn't transparent either. Luckily for it, the 'error' was in its favour. Who knows how it would have played out if it had been the other way round.

By any measure, this is an extraordinary revelation. Imagine what would have happened if ITV or C4 or the Mail Online admitted the same. There would be uproar.

But Facebook's reaction has been almost dismissive, seeking as best it can to brush the issue under the carpet by claiming that the metric - 'Average Duration of Video Viewed' - wasn't that important anyway, and replacing it with a new one called 'Average Watch Time'. Here's its non-apology of an apology.

Never mind that hundreds of millions - perhaps even billions - of advertising spend has been placed on this basis, or that the livelihoods of other media organisation and individuals has been affected, Facebook appears to exhibit no genuine recognition of its responsibility to advertisers, or even a 'mea culpa'. It shrugs it shoulders and gets on with the business of hoovering up more money.

The issue, of course, is that Facebook has been allowed - as Sir Martin Sorrell and others have noted - to mark its own homework.

Sorrell is right, although it should be noted that he has interests on both sides of the coin on this one. As owner of Kantar and a shareholder in Comscore, WPP is naturally keen that whatever independent measurement is applied to Facebook should be supplied by part of WPP.

I asked a number of people last week about how it is that Facebook can be both player and referee and the consensus was, roughly speaking, this: because it can.

Clearly, from the point of view of both advertisers and media agencies this is highly unsatisfactory, yet to judge from the muted response of both, no-one knows what to do about it. The ANA, so vociferous about agency rebates and Spanish practices, handed out a slap on the wrist, acknowledging that, on the one hand, "mistakes do happen" - some mistake, eh? - and on the other calling for Facebook and all digital media owners to accept third-party measurement.

What are the chances of this happening? Not much, it seems. In the UK, we have UKOM, but its remit is to measure audiences, not advertising performance. Thus, as things stand, its hands are tied - and likely to remain so because it is part-owned by the IAB, of whom one of the most influential stakeholders is...you've guessed it...Facebook.

facebook-video-metrics

Cartoon credit: @aliceinml

In the digital world, however, there is a strong case for combining the two because of the way it permits in-flight campaign measurement and adjustment. In other words, if you want to maximise effectiveness, it's helpful to be able to measure not just audiences in real-time but also advertising performance also.

If UKOM's hands are tied, what about BARB? Video advertising, albeit by broadcasters rather than digital pure-plays, is fair and square part of its remit, and if both Google and Facebook want to take TV money, then shouldn't they be measured and judged by the same standards as others?

You'd think so, and as I understand it, BARB and Facebook have been dancing round each other for some time. But as someone familiar with the ongoing discussions puts it, the two sides are engaged in different dances, and "it ain't no tango, and it certainly isn't an American Smooth either."

But no-one can make Facebook, or for that matter, Google join BARB or permit UKOM to widen its remit, and from their point of view, why should that change? They're doing bloody brilliantly without them, and there is the added danger that, were they to subject themselves to the same measurement standards as others, they might not look as good.

So if the industry measurement bodies can't push Facebook and Google into joining their systems, can agencies and advertisers? You'd think, as the ones who control the budgets, that money would talk.

The trouble is that this kind of money talks different languages, when what is needed is one unambiguous message.

Advertisers remain in thrall to Facebook - after all, it delivers precision targeting at global scale or, if like P&G you're less bothered about the targeting, it still delivers scale - and are unlikely to withhold their budgets in sufficient volume to force it to come to the table.

For their part, agencies are also enraptured by Facebook, and besides many have cosy data and insight deals with it which make (or made) them look good with clients, so they have less incentive to rock the boat.

In addition, as it's been explained to me, agencies would find it hard to agree on one third-party supplier to provide independent Facebook measurement, since they are tied in operationally to a multiplicity of different ones.

Given all this, it seems inevitable to me that Facebook can continue to play the industry off against itself, and continue making merry everywhere. The only change might be if Google were to become a 'responsible' media owner by submitting to third-party measurement and thus force Facebook to the table.

But that isn't going to happen any day soon. So long as it remains lucrative, Facebook's glorious irresponsibility is so much more fun.

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Jeremy Nye, Consultant, JUST EAT on 3 Oct 2016
“Good piece. You say that Facebook gets away with it 'because it can', but as individuals we can choose not to use the site. I stopped two years ago and feel a (smug) satisfaction at not contributing personally to the practices you highlight, or to the way Facebook sucks ad revenues from other businesses.”