In defence of Mark Ritson: Digital metrics still have a long way to go

Squabbling over digital metrics is not going to solve the problem, writes Nico Neumann. Instead, let’s focus our energy on improving standards.

After watching the Mumbrella360 debate Are digital metrics bullshit? and observing various Linkedin rants afterwards, I spotted a behavioural trend which I think really does not help our industry. 

So what is this concerning trend?

On the one side there is Mark, a business professor, who has not only been teaching at some of the best schools in the world, but also has first-hand experience in consulting top brands. While he likes to make noise about BS, Mark also tends to back up statements with data and references, and only makes general observations.

Mark can be a bit provocative and likes poking the bear, but that’s his brand and let’s be fair: it is entertaining and probably the reason why Professor Ritson appears to get outstanding teaching evaluations from his students. He may call a room full of people ‘idiots’ to make a point, but he does not insult any single person directly on stage because of a different opinion.

On the other hand, we could hear or read rebuttals from various adland executives, often even directly referring to Mark. Some raised good points, such as possible misunderstandings around the term programmatic.

Yet, in addition to rational arguments, we can also observe a tendency to personally attack or ridicule Mark across social media, events or trade press releases.

Flicking insults – is that what our professional life has become? Perhaps another Donald Trump influence? Is our best future path given by making fun of someone who addresses obvious issues?

I would say some of the responses I have seen only show that Mark has hit a soft spot. Sadly, a lot of people make money with BS and smoke and mirrors in advertising, and these people clearly have an interest in maintaining the status quo.

Of course, this applies to both ‘traditional’ (whatever this means) and digital media, but more business folks related to the latter seem to have pushed the envelope in recent years to make a quick buck at the cost of long-term health. That’s why we ended up with a chief brand officer of one of the biggest advertisers publicly criticising the digital marketing business.

With regard to the Mumbrella360 discussion, we have heard some very interesting points, many of which I have encountered in discussions with friends and colleagues too. I think it’s crucial that we try to sort out some of the misunderstandings and confusions in the background of these discussions.

An eye for an eye?

It is fair to say that the measurement methods for TV, print and radio are flawed too and that digital metrics are not the only ones with errors. However, that’s a separate issue from the many problems that we have created for online media, such as the chaos of definitions, standards and useless vanity engagement KPIs.

Moreover, I feel that this ‘eye for an eye’ approach does not help solve the present challenges we face. Let’s tackle the issues of each medium one by one and not use the flaws of the counterpart as an excuse to do poorly too. If we encourage the philosophy of “an eye for an eye”, we will end up in a blind world.

1. Ad fraud numbers

Indeed, ad fraud numbers seem to vary a lot across studies: is it 2%, or is it 98%?

That’s a valid question and we need to consider a few technical details here: are we talking about clicks or impressions, was the campaign run via an exchange or with a premium publisher and in what year and market was the study conducted?

Fortunately, in 2017 we have much less [identifiable] fraud than in 2014 – largely thanks to the trade press and people like Mark who have made marketers aware of this topic.

Nevertheless, one of the greatest issues for the reported percentage ranges is that anyone can publish any number to get headlines, but we have no idea how a research piece was carried out and whether or not the technology is reliable.

That’s the reason we have accreditation services. In fact, there are only very few companies that are accredited by the MRC for sophisticated invalid traffic detection. You wouldn’t use a non-licensed builder or laymen to construct your home either, so let’s consider only appropriate sources of information for ad fraud discussions.

2. Digital viewability refers to opportunities-to-see, not human eye balls

Unfortunately, too many people confound what viewability refers to. The term just means that the ad was actually completely loaded on a computer or mobile screen (for whatever seconds or percentage). Because only if an ad was presented to a sufficient degree on the open browser tab, consumers have an actual opportunity to see the ad. Based on this definition, TV and print ads have 100% viewability. That does not mean a consumer actually saw the ad on TV, as much as we don’t know whether someone actually notices the 100% viewable ad on a cell phone or computer.

In conclusion, it’s nice to get headlines and we all like defending our turf – otherwise known as the organisations that help us pay our bills. However, there is no reason to get personal with anyone or to play down problems of our ecosystem.

Let’s focus our energy on improving measurements and standards instead. Because if there is one thing the Mumbrella360 debate has illustrated, then it is that we all still have a long way to go.

Nico Neumann is a senior research analyst at the University of South Australia.


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