From agency, to ad exchange, to publisher – every link in the programmatic chain is broken

Dodgy ads, baffled clients, impoverished publishers and an industry-wide existential crisis. Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes argues the promise of programmatic advertising is dead.

Over the years, I’ve sat through a lot of conferences, taken a lot of shorthand notes and written a lot of stories.

Some presentations stay with you though.

Cass: Hard truths about the holding companies

It’s now nearly a week since I watched Martin Cass, former boss of a big media agency in the US, unload at Advertising Week New York on the way that the global holding companies have lost their clients’ trust through their digital buying shenanigans. I’ve been thinking about it a lot on the days since.

If you missed it, you can read the story (and watch the video) here.

It felt to me like one of the most important issues I’d covered this year.

I clearly didn’t do a very good job though. The article only got six comments.

However, Cass’s words are beginning to reverberate around the world.

Prof Mark Ritson, arguably the world’s best marketing commentator, picked up on it earlier this week. In an excoriating piece for Marketing Week in the UK, he warns that “agencies are too late to save their souls”.

Ritson: Too late for agencies

It’s not dissimilar to the point made by Hearts & Science founder Scott Hagedorn when he spoke at Mumbrella360 in Sydney back in June: the industry has poisoned programmatic.

Hagedorn: Industry has poisoned programmatic

Or as Ritson puts it this week: “It’s a mark of just how fucked up our industry is that the concept of programmatic has transitioned from panacea to pariah in five short years. Well done, everyone.”

At least it took the print industry 500 years before it faced an existential crisis.

The broken links go up and down the digital chain. On the same Advertising Week stage, the Financial Times revealed that 15 ad exchanges – including reputable ones – were claiming to sell video inventory on its site that aren’t even available programmatically.

It’s starting to look like this: we have marketers who – thanks to the complexities – no longer understand where their digital money is going.

We have agencies whose model means they have to take an extra slice of the client’s money through arbitrage if they want a hope of being profitable. And we have ad exchanges selling fraudulent inventory on behalf of scammers who spoof websites.

And then the poor old genuine publishers get pennies in the dollar of whatever trickles down.

So why am I sitting in a hotel room in Singapore writing this at four in the morning?

Well, jetlag. Ten days in New York, 33 hours in Sydney and two days in Singapore for the Mumbrella Asia Awards judging will stomp on the body clock somewhat.

But apart from that, the thing that has me banging my head on the desk was what happened when I landed on the Sydney Morning Herald’s home page during my insomniac browsing.

Fake news, delivered via the ads.

The Fake Bill Gates ad, delivered onto the SMH by Google

Indeed, served by Google’s ad exchange onto the SMH. With a high frequency – the same ad kept appearing in multiple slots, again and again as I refreshed the page.

Bill Gates scam ad by Google

It was an ad falsely claiming to contain the endorsement of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, leading to a fake news page purporting to be CNN.

The fake CNN page

And then linking on to a video featuring a faked voiceover claiming to show Gates giving a TED talk promoting the dodgy financial product.

The fake Bill Gates TED talk

For all the alarm about brand safety, sometimes the problem isn’t the advertiser’s reputation needing protecting from the publisher’s content, but the other way round.

And it wasn’t retargeting, by the way. I hadn’t been on some questionable financial advice site. This came up while on Chrome’s incognito mode (I was skirting the SMH’s wobbly paywall because I’d had my 30 free articles for the month.)

And as I wrote this piece, after refreshing the page a few times, I saw the same ad appear on News Corp’s news.com.au too. Again via Google’s ad network.

Ad also appears on news.com.au

The SMH’s owner Fairfax Media would have no idea. Neither would News Corp. They’d just be looking to monetise their overseas traffic with a few low-yielding CPM ads. And trusting Google that the advertisers wouldn’t be too dodgy.

And that’s not even the grubby end of programmatic. This is Google’s ad network.

And the same goes for Facebook, which has been accused of having “dire” controls when it comes to fake ads claiming non existent expert endorsement.

So imagine what the wild west is like at the disreputable end of the market.

It feels like every link in the programmatic chain is broken.

The bigger brands are waking up to this. I’m sure that’s a factor in why the consultancies are taking business from the agencies.

We may not be far from a point when some of publishers will decide that engaging with the ad networks just isn’t worth it it for the meagre dollars they bring in.

We made that call today. Mumbrella hardly carried any programmatic slots anyway, just a few on our jobs board. We sell most of ours direct. Over the years, whenever somebody has tried to persuade us otherwise, it’s always felt like they were trying to sell us magic beans, versus the healthy CPMs we’re lucky enough to get directly.

Nonetheless, today we’ll be switching off those few slots on the job board. I don’t want dodgy Bill Gates ads risking our brand safety. And the dollars we lose will be so small we won’t even notice anyway.

Unfortunately, that’s not an easy answer for mass reach publishers. But I don’t really know what is.

It’s been becoming apparent for a while, but now it’s obvious: the digital chain is broken. I’m not sure it can be fixed.

Like Ritson said: well done, everyone.


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