Publishers and agencies need to fix our digital ads mess
Consumers don't like ad-tracking because they see someone else telling them what they're interested in, warns VCCP Media's joint chief strategy officer, Steve Taylor
At the time of writing, the official music video for The Spice Girls' Wannabe has 517,184,784 views on YouTube. Coincidently, that is exactly the same as the average number of ads served up on a typical publisher's homepage. But more on that later.
I mention Wannabe because I think consumers have told us what they want, what they really really want. And it's not personalised ads. It's not personalisation at scale. And it's not more relevant ads, either.
It's to not be tracked.
We’ve all seen the Flurry numbers by now and have heard the message loud and clear from consumers. Some 96ish% of them do not want to be tracked. It turns out that people want more relevant ads, like they want tidier holes in their heads.
As if things weren’t bad enough for ad tech, the Ad Contrarian himself, the mighty Bob Hoffman, has not only picked up on the debate but shared his views with Parliament, painting a dystopian picture of ad tracking that is ultimately responsible for the breakdown of society.
It’s a surprisingly convincing argument, even though Mr Hoffman’s "straight line between ad tech and radicalisation" is based on flawed logic and conflates unrelated ad tech concepts and practices (he’d be the first to admit he’s no engineer).
And yet, overall he’s right to say that ad tracking isn’t essential, either does harm or at least risks harm, and that digital advertising has got itself into one almighty pickle.
To get ourselves out of it, there are some home truths to face up to.
Firstly, as Dominic Mills argued last week, people do not want to be tracked and offering "more relevant ads" is not a sufficient incentive to get them to opt in.
The ad experience on far too many sites is hugely irritating, with too many ads which are too intrusive and too disruptive of our ability to get at the content we actually want. This doesn't enamour people to ads and is a very poor foundation for a "more relevant ads" proposition.
Even when it should work, targeting delivers too many irrelevant experiences (misread signals) repetitive experiences (no frequency capping) and inappropriate experiences (such as retargeting post-purchase). There's no reason anyone would want more of that.
The final and most potent reason is that we simply don't like the idea of someone else telling us what we're interested in. We want to decide for ourselves what we like and don't like. The promise of more relevant ads is also the threat to deny us our autonomy and the joy of serendipity.
Another home truth for us is that we have allowed the economics of digital display to get bent all out of shape.
RTB was meant to stand for Real Time Bidding, but ended up meaning a Race to The Bottom.
Sold on the idea that programmatic could deliver the right message to the right person at the right time, the only thing left to worry about was delivering impressions at the cheapest possible price.
Hence, the average web page has 517,184,784 tiny ads stuffed into every nook and cranny as publishers try to earn a crust. The economics of programmatic have led to problems not just for publishers, but for agencies and advertisers and pretty much everyone, except ad tech firms and data vendors.
We won’t solve this mess through more ad tech and alternative tracking paradigms. Hoffman is right; we don’t need tracking. In fact experiences like those of Dutch public broadcaster NPO show ditching tracking in favour of contextual ads leads to revenues increasing for the publisher and performance which is as good, or better, for the advertiser.
We need to bring quality and context back to digital media planning. Perhaps the most important "relevance" for effectiveness will turn out to be "right place’".
So what do we do? Collectively, there's a job for everyone.
Publishers need to clean up their pages, and provide fewer, bigger, better formats that fit into the browsing experience instead of fighting against it.
This will inevitably mean that there is less inventory available. That will have a knock on impact on pricing. To make the numbers work CPMs will have to go up. That will be exacerbated by advertisers switching away from long-tail and into better placements as 3rd party cookie targeting options dry-up.
But creative that people actually see, and aren't irritated by, in good quality placements, must surely make for a better investment.
Especially so, if creative and digital agencies think harder about how to deliver relevance that respects and is driven by the contexts in which their ads are delivered.
Media agencies need to rethink targeting and, together with creative counterparts, use context, content and audience profiling to discern who might really be behind the browser.
That will mean accepting wastage - an idea that has become anathema to advertisers.
Their job might be to rethink the role of positive wastage and work with their agency partners to develop measurement frameworks that look beyond lower funnel metrics to establish effectiveness; there's more to digital media than just clicks and taps, as anyone in "digital" has been telling us for years.
If we do all that, I believe we can create an ad funded internet that supports publishers fairly, that is a great creative canvas for brands, that delivers effective ads, and that 'users' like using.
That, surely, is what we want, what we really really want.