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The IAB's open letter to digital critics

25 Aug 2017  |  James Chandler 
The IAB's open letter to digital critics

Pictured: The offending items

Newsline columnist Bob Wootton, alongside other commentators, has lately been highly critical of online advertising. Here, the IAB's James Chandler confronts the barrage of digital criticism.

Dear Bob,

I read with interest your piece ‘Nothing forces reflection like lost business’ this week. Thank you for the reference to our blog (which by the way, I thought was rather good) - just sorry you didn’t share our view that digital isn’t quite the dystopian advertising nightmare some might believe it to be.

Nonetheless, your article prompted me to reply and add some colour to the points you raise.

*drum roll* digital actually works

I had the pleasure of hosting a panel with our friends at the IPA earlier in the summer which showcased the brilliant Economist ‘Raising eyebrows and subscriptions’ campaign. Provocative, well crafted storytelling that created 64,000 paid subscriptions and delivered £25 of revenue for every £1 invested. And all this from a humble banner campaign. When done well (like any media channel) - i.e. creative messaging and intelligent placements - digital delivers; even in its most simplest form.

Adding to this brilliant work by The Economist, is evidence from our own research conducted with AIMIA, I2C and MTM using Nectar card sales data that showed the impact that exposure to digital advertising had on offline sales. On average across five brands - Nescafe, Magnum, Haagen Dazs, Maille Mustard and Persil - each £1 spent on programmatic display generated £1.47 in sales in Sainsbury's, a figure that would be even higher if sales in other supermarkets were also factored in.

This is in addition to driving up brand metrics - for example, an increase of +45% in ‘this brand is for people like me’ across the brands measured. The results and their impact on Unilever’s approach to digital display are reported here.

The V word

Might I suggest that rather than a lack a rigour in the online space, perhaps the fact that there are a countless number of different viewability standards, might be adding to the confusion. After all, if I’m media owner Z, whose standard should I adopt? Or should I try and satisfy as many parties as possible by adopting several? Even within the same advertiser, multiple viewability standards for different regions have been known to exist. You can see the dilemma.

What’s more, somewhere along the line, viewability seems to have got mixed up with effectiveness. Whether or not a human saw an ad, or indeed had an opportunity to see one, is clearly not the same as determining whether or not the ad actually succeeded in doing what you intended it to do.

Finger pointing and open letters

Sadly, the truth here is far less salacious than your assertions. It’s also common knowledge amongst agencies and I expect a good number of savvy advertisers.

Google has worked with comScore to provide data so that YouTube can be effectively measured on UKOM, and Google Double Click Exchange is JICWEBS registered and DTSG certified. This is publicly available information and shows Google adhering to industry standards set by the IPA, ISBA, AOP and IAB.

Facebook is actively engaged with industry JICs about how it can facilitate more accurate measurement, particularly of mobile video.

Do we wish this was already delivered? Yes, of course - but between them, these ‘tech behemoths’ are making progress and embracing the responsibility they have in setting the example on what ‘good digital’ looks like.

It’s worth remembering that progress doesn’t always take place in the gaze of the public eye or get documented in column inches of the trade press, nor should we expect it to.

Automated, not programmatic

I wonder if it’s useful to stop using programmatic as the bogeyman for all the evils digital supposedly beholds? After all, it seems that automated trading - what I find most people mean when they say ‘programmatic’ - is the future of all media channels, be that OOH, TV, radio or print.

Only this week on the BBC’s News at Ten was Thinkbox’s Lindsey Clay confirming that: ‘the internet is the future of TV’.

Digital’s impact isn’t just on how telly is now consumed, but how it will be planned, bought and delivered.

The future’s bright, the future’s digital

There are lots of reasons to be cheerful. With UK advertisers investing more than ever before in digital (over £10bn according to our 2016 Digital Adspend study), it’s clear that they do trust and understand how digital delivers on their marketing objectives.

In October, more than 1,500 of the smartest people in our industry will gather at The Barbican for Engage 2017 to celebrate what’s great about digital advertising. Over half of that audience will be made up of UK advertisers.

Of course, there is work to do and as an organisation set up to represent digital advertising we’re are not immune to criticism. But, it’s all too easy to stand at a distance shouting vague, emotive things about the woes of digital and how it’s not working for brands. The IAB’s role as I see it six months into the job, is to bring together everyone with an interest in digital to achieve things they couldn’t do on their own.

I would love for you to be a part of this Bob, so I have reserved you a seat at the Barbican in October to enjoy all that Engage has to offer, as our guest. I hope you’ll join us - not just in October, but going forward to help make a sustainable future for digital advertising that works for everyone.


James Chandler

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BobWootton, Principal, Deconstruction on 29 Aug 2017
“Thanks, James, for your open letter to Mediatel in response to my and others’ comments. I’m delighted that the debate is raging and in the open - that can only be a force for good.

You’re right that I’ve been critical about what I guess bundles up as sloppiness in the media channel which that ought to be the cleanest, most verifiable and accountable at a time of unprecedented advertiser demand for rigour, performance, value and return.

This manifests variously: in comms and media planning; delegation of execution to tech; overly-complex and hyped value chains; whether an ad appeared before a human or even whether it was displayed in a legitimate and safe place. And I haven’t even mentioned significant financial and other incentives.

There would be little place for these - and for attendant critical comment - were the promise of the channel truly being realised. Not that that has stopped it from becoming the biggest game in town and thus one that attracts it fair share from the likes of me.

But far from having a downer on online, you’ll also know that I have been equally - perhaps sometimes even more - critical of other channels at other times over the very long term when they were either not performing or playing it fast and loose.

With so many powerful vested interests at play there are also too few independent voices in the space. Apart from writing for Mediatel and Marketing Week, my new portfolio life includes working for the oldest medium (as Executive Director of global out-of-home body FEPE), a cutting-edge media play (NED of Blackwood Seven) and sometimes assisting UKOM so even I sometimes feel conflicted.

Finally, thank you for the kind invitation to IAB Engage in October and to be a part of working these things through to a better and more sustainable conclusion. I’d love to help.”
NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 25 Aug 2017
“Hear hear! I don't necessarily agree that digital is as good as is made out, as an ad medium, but frankly, it's good to see the level of discourse about online raised by this letter. Mediatel's - and in particular Wootton's and Mills' - old man "all media were better in my day, before that interwebs came along" schtick is tired, and doesn't do Mediatel's aspirations to be taken seriously as a platform discussing media in a level-headed way any favours. After all, if they really resented it so much, why would these columnists be appearing online, rather than in print?

As to the current state of digital, it's a complex beast, made more challenging by the lazy reductionism that of "winning". The view that "online doing well means TV and print lose" leads to this tribal nonsense of people defending their medium to the hilt, blind to the flaws it may have, or the opportunity for greater impact by combining channels.

Above all, advertisers and the industry are having to learn as they go with digital advertising. The contributory nature of the web, and the distributed nature of web advertising, means that the web is raising issues of censorship vs free speech (as Facebook continues to struggle with) that have no real parallel in prior media (where content is ultimately created, commissioned and controlled by the publisher). Likewise the nature of brand safe content: the web is a repository of every single thing that someone anywhere in the world can think, essentially; and before the web, publishers had never had to grapple with the concept of brand safe and how to manage it, on this scale. So we should absolutely highlight that things are not perhaps where we want them to be, but we must also accept that this is a process and it is evolving through mistakes like the programmatic/ YouTube ad debacle earlier in the year.
Hand in hand with that is measurement but also practitioner discipline, which also must improve and evolve. There's no doubt that viewability has become a huge millstone around the neck of the industry: originally meant merely as a necessary stepping stone towards consistent measurement and trading of reach and frequency, it has instead become a sufficient end point for many measurement discussions. The industry must move on, or risk being further derailed by endless discussions of whether it should be 50% of pixels for 1 second, whether 100% viewability is even possible, and so on.

But closely interwoven with this is how data and measurement are used in the modern media space. Frankly, I've worked with far too many people for whom "data" is a substitute for "insight", and "more data" is clearly better than less data. Account planners accumulate data points such as viewability, impressions, cpm, cpc, but without ever being able to point to a measure of effectiveness. Take a step far enough back, and it seems that advertisers need education - in their responsibilities when advertising online, in what they need to ask of publishers for measurement, and so on. And frankly, publishers in other media also need to be educated: in how to make digital a complement to, not a replacement for, their channel; in how to move beyond the simplistic and fatuous "if online wins, my medium loses" schoolyard arguments.

Imperfect as it is, online isn't going away. The best way to address this is to engage, and be instrumental in shaping the medium it will become - not sitting back and dismissively claiming that it's not a patch on the media we had back in MY day...”
NigelGwilliam, Head of Media, IPA on 25 Aug 2017
“Hi James,
Just a point of clarification: Google DoubleClick Exchange may be DTSG certified, but YouTube is not. So it would be more accurate to say that Google in part adheres to industry standards for brand safety - which is a bit of an odd situation. I'm sure you would agree it makes sense for YouTube to become a signatory, as the IPA actually called for. In the spirit of balance, I hope you would also agree with our call for Facebook to adhere to industry standards for brand safety. Cheers, Nigel”


01 Jul 2020 

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