James Thompson
Sep 5, 2017

Two camps clash over the true value of ads

It has never been easy to put hard numbers to the value of advertising, but client-side marketers are wising up to the possibility agency types might be being deliberately pulling digital wool over their eyes.

Face value: Appearances have always been deceptive, but brands are waking up to the need for vigilance.
Face value: Appearances have always been deceptive, but brands are waking up to the need for vigilance.

Which side of the fence are you on? Are you a client looking to buy media, confused by the conflicting reports as to whether you can trust the claimed viewing numbers of the likes of Google and Facebook, alarmed by stories that these numbers are massively inflated by ‘bot’ viewings, and concerned that the virtual paper that these statistics are printed on is not worth wiping your own ‘bot’ with?

Possibly in this camp is Keith Weed, chief marketing officer at Unilever, who spoke at Cannes about the need for companies like this to provide a higher standard of proof of the probity of their assertions if they want him to keep throwing his mega millions at them. 

Or maybe you work at ‘GoogleyBook’ or similar, or perhaps a media agency with a vested interest in informing/seducing/bamboozling (select verb according to taste) clients using data driven persuasion techniques and thereby sucking up with a big vacuumey noise every last media yuan, yen and dollar your pretending-to-understand client can possibly shell in your direction. 

If so, you probably smile at your pre-Copernican client’s affection for ancient media forms and message formats longer than eight seconds. (By the way, every time I find myself agreeing with our media agency these days, I immediately order myself to take a cold shower and have a nice lie down, the better to recover my common sense.) 

Very little of this is, of course, new. Back in the 1980s an agency ran an ad in Campaign that depicted two lovers making out on a sofa underneath the headline: “Nielsen says they’re watching your ad.” Registering actual viewing of ads has always been an imprecise science for obvious reasons. Not just film, either.

Disclosure of commercial secrets alert: our very own econometric model says that out-of-home advertising is among the least effective you can buy (try telling that to Marlboro, but never mind that for now). Most people walking past bus shelters, it seems, are too absorbed in more immediate concerns to ponder well-meaning commercial advice. And yet, on the other hand, some of our most successful work has, in fact, been out-of-home. 

If there have always been lies and statistics, and if ad viewing has always been notoriously difficult to record, the difference today is that media vendors are now also the data owners and vendors in a way that is completely different to past norms. 

No-one should question the ethics of these firms without good cause. However, given their historic and disproportionate power, ‘trust but verify’ is a good motto. GoogleyBook should find that the weaker the verification, the lower the trust. And eventually that may result in someone asking if it is in the public interest for companies that hold so much power, wrapped up in such great secrecy, to remain intact.

James Thompson is global managing director of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio).


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