Digital ads are at a watershed moment

Digital ads are at a watershed moment

The Times' two-day splash is a timely call to brands, agencies and publishers to resolve the problems of programmatic once and for all.

The John Lewis Partnership is used to being in national newspapers. But being splashed on the front pages as part of an investigation into funding terrorism is an altogether different experience to people lauding your Christmas advertising efforts. Waitrose was one of a number of brands whose ads appeared alongside Islamic extremist and far-right videos and fake news viewed by a Times journalist. Even having to announce you’re closing six stores and cutting hundreds of jobs has got to be better than that.

The Times linked these misplaced ads to the "murky at best and fraudulent at worst" digital advertising supply chain described by Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, Marc Pritchard, last month. We all know that the way digital ads are bought and sold is one of the reasons why many premium newspapers are in serious trouble. Brands and their agencies buy digital ad slots based on online users’ previous behaviour rather than the environment they’re going to sit in. Spots next to fake news or beheading videos can look the same as those on premium publishers’ websites. 

Writing in Campaign this week, Guardian News & Media chief revenue officer Hamish Nicklin says this is a "watershed moment" and the industry needs to set out principles to create a clean and fair system. Being on the front page of The Times ought to focus some minds on the problem. 

There is no doubt that splashing the story on two consecutive days is part of a wider News Corp agenda. The group’s quarterly results came out on the same day as the first story and chief executive Robert Thomson discussed the issue on its investors’ call. 

Thomson was pretty punchy in calling out agencies and programmatic networks for being at fault. He said there has been an awakening to the issue and we are heading towards a "reckoning". Conveniently, he has an answer for the problem in the form of a digital ad network News Corp is testing. Presumably, the network will allow News Corp papers to ensure they achieve a fair price for their ad space. 

As you hardly need me to tell you, The Guardian is in a different position. With no paywall to fall back on, the need to generate advertising cash – and the temptation to drop your prices in an auction – is more acute. Nicklin’s solution is industry-wide standards for each member of the ecosystem. In one report this week, an ad-tech professional admitted publishers were getting even less than the much-touted 30 cents of every dollar spent on digital ad campaigns. 

Pritchard is brave to have been so honest about P&G’s failings. But his confession has yet to prompt a crescendo of others to say the same thing. In fact, one figure I spoke to was taken aback that the biggest advertiser in the world didn’t have its house in order. However, Pritchard is right that advertisers are the ones with the power to change things. Unless the industry acts quickly and decisively, much of the newspaper industry might struggle to survive to see the reckoning.

Maisie McCabe is acting UK editor of Campaign. 

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