Online marketing mystery flights

Blue chip brands running ads on sites they shouldn't is not a new phenomenon but questions still need to asked about why they are willing to buy ad space in non-disclosed environments.

Business Spectator

In mid November, AdNews writer Paul McIntyre ran a story titled ‘Brands Scrambling over Porn Site ads’.

The piece outlined the fact that several blue chip Australian brands were running advertising on websites that weren’t exactly in line with the moral standards these brands prided themselves on.

These sorts of stories are easy gets. Most days there are blue chip brands running on sites they shouldn’t be. AdNews ran a story like this three years ago with the same premise and similar brands. So this is not a relatively new phenomenon that requires new thinking – it’s an old problem that requires thinking. Period.

As someone who has worked on the media agency side and within a publishing environment, it has always confused me that people would take the risk of purchasing ad space on non-disclosed environments.

It’s sort of like the mystery flight of the media world. Sure, it’s technically a flight and involves a trip in a plane, but you have no real idea of your end destination. It could be Los Angeles or it could be Baghdad.

However, using the veil of data, many companies are selling these digital mystery flights as ‘targeted media solutions’.

My thoughts? You can add all the data layers you want but ultimately, isn’t it sensible to understand exactly where your ads are running before they run?

Not really, if you examine the growth of exchanges and the world of the demand side platform (the sale of ads on a series of sites from the one platform provider). Most large marketers are investing in these areas and investment dollars are flowing freely. Google is betting that this area is a multi-billion dollar area that will ultimately rival paid search in scale and yield. Holding companies are all setting up DSPs. These are smart companies full of smart people who generally make smart business decisions.

A wise man once told me that you can’t fight the market, explaining that you can hold the perceived moral high ground all you want, but if the market forces move around you then ultimately you’re the one with the issue.

With regard to the concept of the ad network, I really am not so sure DSPs are the ultimate answer, despite all the signs pointing to evidence that this is the future of the online advertising ecosystem.

What if it’s just groupthink gone wild? A case of ‘violent agreement’, or at worst a last-gasp opportunistic attempt by some to appeal to desperate publishers with an advertiser demand issue and agitated investors wanting some sort of positive revenue movement?

Or maybe it's none of those things. But one thing it definitely shows is a lack of consideration of the value of content. Users are drawn to the internet for the content it offers and this approach is fundamentally disconnected from the content the user is viewing.

The AdNews ‘expose’ is proof of that. We can rely on technology all we want, but if a toothpaste company is serving up a supermarket redemption promotion next to a buxom skin model then there’s an issue with the technology. The user and the ad message are disconnected.

Now, technology is hard to question. Mention the term ‘algorithms’ and generally any concerns are shut down under the guise of computers knowing what is best. But these are healthy questions everyone should be asking. Who concocts these cookies? What is the recipe? How do these ads end up where they end up?

These are all valid questions and questions the industry collectively needs to solve. We shouldn’t rely on trade magazine exposes every three or so years to shake us into gear. Advertisers deserve a guarantee these situations will not occur.

Today, it’s a case of ‘begging forgiveness’, rather than ‘asking permission’, before placing an advertiser into a potentially damaging space.

Right now we have it the wrong way around.

Ben Shepherd is the Commercial Director at Sound Allianceand blogs at Talking Digital.

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