Brands need to fire adtech

This post is by Doc Searls from Doc Searls Weblog

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Two days ago, the New York Times said the U.S. that AT&T and Johnson & Johnson are pulling their ads from YouTube. They’re concerned that “Google is not doing enough to prevent brands from appearing next to offensive material, like hate speech.” Yesterday, Business Insider said “more than 250” advertisers were bailing as well. These came after one Guardian report said Audi, HSBC, Lloyds, McDonald’s, L’Oréal, Sainsbury’s, Argos, the BBC and Sky were doing the same in the U.K., and another Guardian report said O2, Royal Mail and Vodaphone were also joining the boycott.

Agencies placing those ads on YouTube are shocked, shocked! that ads for these fine brands are showing up next to “extremist material,” and therefore sponsoring it. They blame Google, and so does most of the coverage as well.

Here’s what almost nobody reporting on this debacle is saying: Brands think they’re placing ads in while the systems they hire chase eyeballs to wherever they show up online. Put another way, brands think they’re buying online advertising while they’re really buying adtech. Since adtech systems are automated, and biased toward finding the cheapest ways to hit eyeballs with ads, and to do that as often as possible for the money, some ads show up on unsavory sites. Hey, even desirable eyeballs sometimes go to undesirable sites.

Folks, this is the way adtech was designed to work. And that’s why expecting adtech to fix itself is a losing bet. Advertisers are the ones to fix it, and they can do it by firing adtech and its agents and going back to sponsoring reputable broadcasters and publishers. Simple as that.

In Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, I said “Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.” This problem wouldn’t exist if the alien replica wasn’t chasing spied-on eyeballs, and if advertisers still sponsored desirable media the old-fashioned way.

We need to face the fact that adtech only looks like advertising, and that to continue calling it advertising is pure misdirection.

It’s adtech that spies on people and violates their privacy. It’s adtech that’s full of fraud and malware. It’s adtech that chases eyeballs everywhere. It’s adtech that incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. It’s adtech that gives fake news a business model, because the fake is easier to produce than the real, and pays just as well.

Brands will be far better served by sponsoring media they (or their non-brain-stolen agencies) know, like and trust. That’s what produced brands in the first place. Can you name one brand produced by adtech? Even a minor one? (And how many $billions or $trillions have been spent on adtech so far?)

An open question is if agencies can be programmatic online without spying on people. Because spying is where the problem starts. That’s why Do Not Track became a thing, and why ad blocking hockey-sticked when the adtech industry and publishers together gave the middle finger to people’s polite request not to be tracked.

Adtech’s rationalizations are all around putting the “right message in front of the right people at the right time,” and aiming those messages with spyware-harvested Big Data. Both of those are direct marketing purposes, not those of brand advertising.

Brand advertising has never been personal. That would be too much like junk mail and spam. Instead, brand advertising has always been about making many people in a general target population know a name and a reputation well. And brand advertising still works. Ask any of the advertisers still sponsoring sports broadcasting or fashion magazines.

So yeah, it makes sense for Google and Facebook to make sure sponsored content is “brand safe.” But that won’t solve the real problem, which is adtech.

It also won’t be easy for the big platforms to fix their adtech systems. Consider, for example, the egg that was splattered on Mark Zuckerberg’s face by Facebook’s own adtech when he posted his insistence that “99% of what people see is authentic” and “only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.” Others, such as Medium’s Ev Williams, were also targeted by the same kind of adtech-aimed fakery.

It’s their job to show that programmatic advertising can sponsor the best content the old fashioned way. And it’s the advertisers’ job to fire adtech in the meantime.

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