May You Live in Interesting Times

23 Dec

confuciousOften referred to as the “Chinese Curse” this popular saying derives from the English Politician Sir Austen Chamberlain in the early twentieth century. Used ironically, the phrase has been used to suggest a set of outcomes that are a little more ominous, “May you experience much disorder and trouble in your life.”

As we reflect on what has been a tumultuous 2016, those working in the marketing and advertising industry most certainly would agree that we are living in interesting times. Recent news suggests that the industry’s troubles will not abate much in the coming year. The year began with evidence suggesting that the level of digital ad fraud would eclipse $8.0 billion in 2016, this was followed by the blockbuster findings from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) / K2 study on “Media Transparency” which rocked the global ad industry.  Sadly, the industry is winding down 2016 with a litany of additional actions and outcomes that pose serious threats to the level of trust, already shaken, between stakeholders in the $540 billion global advertising marketplace.

In the last two weeks, the industry heard once again from Facebook that it had made yet another audience reporting faux pas, its third of the year, which many in the ad agency community have been all too willing to forgive. Who could possibly be surprised with advertisers for being genuinely perplexed as to why the media agency community hasn’t more thoroughly scrutinized Facebook’s audience measurement reporting or pushed more aggressively for independent verification of those results.

Concurrently, halfway around the globe, Australia’s three largest magazine publishers (News Corp, Bauer Media and Pac Mags) decided to cease their participation in the Audited Media Association of Australia’s (AMAA) magazine circulation service leaving advertisers no other choice but to rely on these publishers’ self-reported “readership” numbers, rather than audited circulations figures.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice has subpoenaed agencies from four of the world’s largest holding companies; WPP, Omnicom, IPG and Publicis as part of its investigation into illegal bid-rigging for commercial production jobs. It is alleged that these agencies coerced and or rewarded independent production houses to submit inflated bids, ostensibly to manipulate the process in favor of agency in-house production resources. Many believe that the DOJ’s investigation will have a profound impact on both the estimated $5 billion production sector and potentially the rest of the business. Let’s not forget, the DOJ has not yet weighed in regarding agency practices identified in the ANA/ K2 study on media transparency.

Most recently, WhiteOps, a U.S. a cyber security firm providing ad viewability and fraud detection supporting the advertising industry, announced that it had uncovered a Russian led digital fraud effort that was literally stealing up to $5 million per day from advertisers. It was reported by the NY Times that the fraudsters impersonated more that “6,100 news and content publishers” while delivering up to 300 million fake ad views per day. How were they able to do this? By creating over one-half million bots that replicated the web surfing patterns of humans, starting and stopping videos and moving and clicking the cursor. 

If client organizations were experiencing a “crisis of trust” hangover following 2015, it certainly wasn’t remedied in 2016. Going into the New Year advertisers have every right to step back and ask, “Who can we trust?” Our agency partners? Ad tech vendors? Media Owners? Measurement Services? And who would blame advertisers for taking matters into their own hands and make a New Year Resolution to more directly deal with these issues. After all, it is their monetary inputs that fuel the entire industry and they certainly deserve better that what they’re getting right now. In the words of the iconic American actor, Clint Eastwood: Sometimes if you want to see a change for the better, you have to take things into your own hands.”

 

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