In the past two weeks there have been two scandalous stories regarding online advertising:
- The ISBA report that determined that 50% of all programmatic ad dollars never reach a publisher.
- The CNBC reporter who produced a website overnight that attracted substantial advertisers with nothing on the website but stolen, plagiarized garbage.
On the surface the stories are unrelated. But I believe there is a strong connection between them. The connection is the symbiotic relationship between trash media and trash tech.
First, let's define our terms. By trash media I mean web entities that are not what they appear to be—e.g, sites that don't actually exist; sites whose traffic is all or substantially fraudulent; sites that rely heavily on sourced traffic.
By trash tech I mean ad technology that cannot reliably differentiate between legitimate web entities and fraudulent or phony entities; tech whose function, costs, or contribution to efficiencies are non-transparent.
Trash media has become an important part of the online advertising ecosystem. The dirty little secret that every media person knows is that if you want to report low CPMs your recipe has to include some component of cheap, worthless junk.
In other words, the way to be a hero with low CPMs requires you to go dumpster diving in the web's long tail of trash.
Here's where trash tech enters the picture. Programmatic buys not only scour the web for low-cost publishers, they give trash media legitimacy by tarting it up with the mantle of technology. There is nothing that marketers like better than to stand before their lords and ladies with impressive metrics—in this case low CPMs. Adtech now allows them to simultaneously dumpster dive and enhance their status as media scientists. Who doesn't want a slice of that?
Apologists for the adtech/programmatic ecosystem will say that in all systems there is a potential for abuse, and that the waste in programmatic advertising is just an unintended effect of a system designed to optimize spending efficiency.
I don't buy it. Maybe it started that way, but those days are long gone. I believe that, in part, the adtech/programmatic ecosystem has become a deceitful game of normalizing garbage by dressing it up in a lab coat.
I don't think that trash media is flourishing online as an unintended effect of adtech. I think it has become an essential component of a system that is largely incomprehensible and distressingly non-transparent.
Trash media enables low CPMs. Trash tech legitimizes it.
Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter, where this first appeared, and blog. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.