Momentum is building among brand advertisers pushing for greater oversight of the digital ad industry, but consultants say a similar effort is non existent among political marketers.
Questions about transparency and the effectiveness of online advertising have bubbled to the surface in recent weeks. Now, corporate marketers are rethinking their digital ad buying, but critics say the political side of the industry still hasn’t woken up to the same issues.
The concern is so widespread in consumer advertising that just over 60 percent of U.S. advertisers said they’re ready to review their digital agencies in the next 12 months, according to a report covered by Ad Age.
That news came in the wake of a Wall Street Journal report last week which found brand advertisers rethinking their digital spending amid a series of revelations.
Those revelations ranged from concern over whether ad agencies are accepting rebates from media companies without telling their clients, Facebook’s overestimating its video metrics, and Dentsu Inc., a Japanese ad and PR firm, recently admitting it overcharged 111 companies, including Toyota, for digital ads. The company has agreed to pay back $2.3 million in fees.
Part of the reason that corporations are growing agitated about the state of digital advertising is they’ve been educated by their trade group: the Association of National Advertisers, according to Mark Schlosser, a senior director at White Ops, a cyber security firm that monitors online metrics for advertisers.
“The ANA has been speaking about transparency for over a year now. It’s taken a tremendous amount of time and it takes a tremendous amount of effort, but marketers are beginning to audit their agencies,” Schlosser told C&E. “At the end of the day, all [political marketers] care about is winning. If they lose, maybe they’re bitter and they start to look at things.” But winning wipes away most concerns.
Some digital agencies were quick to note they're open to working with the ANA. “We are currently in dialogue with the ANA about how we can work more closely together," the San Francisco-based OutCast Agency said in a statement to C&E. "[W]e strongly believe in third-party verification [and] have a history of working with industry leaders including Nielsen, Moat, and comScore."
Still, there are limits to what the ANA can do. Tony Pace, chairman of the ANA recently said transparency will likely need to be resolved "on a more individual marketer-to-agency basis versus having a global solution.”
Meanwhile, political marketers could use their own trade group beyond just membership in the Interactive Advertising Bureau, according to Chris Nolan, founder of Spot-On, a digital ad agency that works with campaigns.
To help chart the industry’s course on transparence, Nolan’s firm has been running an online survey to gauge political advertisers’ knowledge of the digital environment. “Just how much lack of knowledge is out there — it’s outrageous,” she said.
“Campaigns love impressions; they don’t look at where those ads are going,” Nolan explained. “I recently saw an insertion order from a well-established media-buying firm in D.C.
“I am not exaggerating, it said: six million ads, $100,000, six million video ads, $125,000. That’s $225,000 in online advertising that doesn’t list the time of the placements. It doesn’t list the site. It just says, ‘give us your money.’”
She added: “It is utterly impossible for the political community to continue to have faith in online advertising.”
Nolan said part of the problem is that the majority of ads are being bought through exchanges in a real-time bidding (RTB) process. “Because it’s on a real-time basis,” said Nolan, “it’s hard to predict what sites you’re going to be on.”
Most sell-side firms, she said, “don’t really know where they’re going to place their clients’ ads. You have to understand that because you’re buying at the last minute, under tight geographic constraints, you’re going to get ads that are less than desirable. It’s not an open market.”
Nolan said it’s up to the clients to get confirmation about where their ad buy is being placed.
Passivity on the part of online buyers is what is fueling corruption in the industry.
“I love it when I have clients who want to read reports,” she said. “That means they’re thinking, they’re engaged in what they’re doing.”
JC Medici, national director of politics and advocacy at Rocket Fuel, a programmatic marketing platform, said third-party verification, like the kind offered by firms like White Ops, has increased transparency. “In this aspect,” he said in an email, “we are closing the gap with brand campaigns.”
But the rebates given to ad agencies from media companies is an area where transparency could be improved, he said. “[P]olitical clients are over paying for digital campaigns and when clients find out, the truth it gives our vertical a bad reputation.”
Medici said he hoped that campaigns and consultants would audit the results of their digital spending in the wake of the 2016 election, which is expected to see record volumes go to online ads.
Auditing, he said, could make it “harder for these white label "tech-slash-agency entities … to charge outlandish rates to clients who do not know any better.
“It will be good for the candidates and good for our political vertical.”