The alluring promise of digital was always data-led. Imagine a world where we have visibility over the entire customer journey, on an individual level, where we can match a single advertising exposure to purchase behaviour and brand attitude. But here we are in 2017, digital advertising expenditure is surpassing traditional media spend, and yet the headlines read that:

  • 50 percent of all digital advertising impressions are not viewable (Meetrics estimate that UK advertisers spend £600m on advertising that was not technically able to be seen)
  • digital advertising is funding terror and porn
  • digital advertising is murky and fraudulent and typified by “crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences” (P&G’s Marc Pritchard at the IAB’s Annual Leadership Meeting 2017)

These are big problems. However, what worries me most is the growing trend for buying decisions to be made that simply do not value the media itself, and thus the attractive context and environment of trusted media, are steadily becoming commoditised.

This shift from using media as a proxy for audience towards buying audiences directly through programmatic trades is putting publishers under pressure as these new buying mechanisms often assume media environment is irrelevant. The focus on buying audiences using programmatic advertising is inevitably moving money away from publishers who have created high value environments in favour of cheaper environments delivering the same audience.

As the above examples have demonstrated, that blindness to the benefits of association with a strong media brand can have negative effects for the brands who choose to do so. Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose and Marie Curie are among the brands who have recently received negative press for inadvertently ‘funding terror’. As reported by The Drum, spokesman for the ad trade body ISBA Hicham Felter has said:

“The suspicion is that the surge in programmatic trading is being fuelled by the profit media agencies can make rather than because it delivers better results for their clients.”

There is no doubt that the wealth of recent innovations in the digital media landscape have produced new opportunities for brands, but a lack of consistency in measurement standards has left many struggling to assess the value of the media they buy. This problem is especially critical for brand advertising, where performance metrics such as click and transaction rates are of limited relevance.

I have a vested interested in raising these issues. My business Lumen Research, in partnership with AIMIA, has created the world’s first eye tracking panel that passively measures attention to digital advertising. We observe that viewability is less half the problem, in fact just 1 in 7 ad impressions are actually seen by a human being. We can prove that discounting the environment in search of the audiences makes ads less likely to be seen. A premium, reputable publisher can deliver up to x15 more attention to the advertising.

I think it is time for the industry to come together on this and discuss some of the big issues that face us all in trying to build and sustain brands and ever digitising world:

  • to consider a new cross-device audience measurement solution that fairly captures the value publishers create for brands: the attention of their audiences
  • to focus on quality of messaging and environment, to raise the percent of digital impressions that consumers really look at (are we really ok with the fact that only 14 percent of the ads we buy get seen?)
  • to focus on longer term measures that attribute across the purchase funnel and appreciate that brand-building is not a short-term business

Publishers and marketers have always been aware that trading long-term brand strength for a short-term gain in ad dollars is a bad idea. A reprioritisation of measurements to focus more on the benedits in the long-term should be a priority, even as the industry grapples with viewability issues.