The Ad Business: One Step Up From Selling Used Cars

Why We Need to Wake Up and Be More Transparent Before It's Too Late

Martin Cass, CEO, Assembly

Every year, Gallup runs the Honesty/Ethics in Professions study, ranking jobs by the trust the public has across multiple fields such as Medicine, Business, Politics and others. (1). Advertising sits marginally above "car salespeople" at 10% vs 8%. I would make a guess that trust in the practice of digital media or programmatic is even lower, particularly given the headlines over the last few months. Given that digital is fundamentally changing the landscape of advertising, that's a bit of a problem, don't you think?

This year's Advertising Week is descending upon New York again and a very common theme seems to be trust. There is a "Trust Forum" with a complete section on "Digital Shenanigans," and the week opens with a session called "Transparency and Openness in Programmatic." The panel description even articulates that "no one seems to agree on what that actually means, how we actually accomplish it, or even why it's necessary." No really, it's true!

Transparency in our dealings should be a given across the industry because, in the end the money we spend belongs to the client not the agency. Hiding behind "It's okay the client is happy because it's still a great value." is not an excuse for using someone else's money to make more for yourself. Note to everyone: IT'S NOT OKAY.

It was pretty instructive that just last week Belkin (they make Linksys routers) publicly announced that they were moving away from programmatic because they felt it simply "wasn't transparent enough." We have all heard the stats that up to 60% of every client dollar doesn't find its way to the media owner. What's shocking is that the industry seems to be fine with keeping this opaque. And that is why clients are discussing whether they will bring programmatic in-house.  In a few weeks' time there is a session on this very subject at AdTech New York (Our business loves conferences, don't we?) called "Going Programmatic: In house or agency."

We really do run the risk of killing our own business unless we make changes.  Here is what I would like to suggest:
  1. Agencies need to commit to sending clients media owner invoices - not invoices from the trading desk.
  2. Clients need to see the actual cost of each element you purchase and be comfortable with the money they are spending.
  3. Clients, please be willing to pay fairly when value is created. Cheap and efficient are not the same, and programmatic media has massive potential to grow business. Be sure you understand how everything works and don't be afraid to ask questions when you don't.
As attractive as the profits are from money management schemes in digital buying (and beyond), maybe we need to be clearer as to what we do as an industry. Last time I checked, as agencies, we are charged with helping our customers to build their brands and not act like financial institutions.  If we are not very careful those very financial institutions (who are much better at money management, by the way) may smell an opportunity to try their hand at making money in media arbitrage.

I sincerely hope that there is some real progress in cleaning up the industry's act here so next year there isn't a need for a "Trust Forum." Then maybe, just maybe, we can catch up with those nice Bankers at 23%.