Climbing the garden wall: The problem with programmatic advertising

Last week, American banking giant JP Morgan Chase became the latest high-profile brand to demand long overdue transparency from social platforms and ad providers paid to promote their business online.

In response to reports their adverts appeared alongside ‘fake news’ and inappropriate material, the bank cut the number of sites hosting their ads from 200,000 to 5,000 handpicked pages. The effect? No drop in ad performance.

The Marketing Centre has, for some time, viewed metrics touted by those involved with digital advertising – platforms, agencies and ‘gurus’ – with dollops of scepticism. The direct results and ROI demanded by owner managed businesses have, by-and-large, been unaffected by the ‘100,000 impressions’ and ‘increased engagement’ they’ve received.

Throughout 2016, stories like JP Morgan Chase’s emerged that highlighted the murky – even illegal – advertising practices common across the web.

75% of new digital ad spend went to Google and Facebook in 2016, creating so-called ‘walled gardens’ with very little room for competition. But with duopolies come problems; and grumbles of discontent about ad practices have become louder and louder.

Programmatic advertising agencies were accused of siphoning funds from customers, without their knowledge. Facebook was found to have exaggerated the view numbers for business’ videos by up to 80%. Instagram is currently under investigation for misleading consumers. That Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and LinkedIn all measure their ad performance differently makes it even harder to understand which platform is most effective for businesses.

The tides are turning. In January, FMCG giant Proctor & Gamble declared their intention to corroborate all online advertising data by independent third parties – a move Mark Ritson described as heralding the start of a new age of digital marketing. Businesses are waking up to the idea that much online marketing reporting is at best misleading – at worst, untrue.

All of which brings to mind John Wanamaker’s oft-quoted line, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Wanamaker made his claim in the golden age of print, at the turn of the twentieth century. Today the same can be said of digital.

So business owners: judge the efficacy of online advertising by results – not the standards of those who sell them to you. Ask yourself what the online ad metrics presented to you actually mean. Do they reflect the marketing goals you’ve set for your business? Does the name of the metric accurately describe what it measures? Will it build your business and brand.

It’s time to be vigilant – otherwise you may be flushing your online budget down the toilet. And no-one can afford to do that.