Are Public Displays of Aggression the New Norm in Adland?

TubeMogul vs. Google, 4As vs ANA and SAG-AFTRA vs Droga5 May Be a Sign of Things to Come

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Last week, TubeMogul papered the streets of San Francisco and New York and took to the pages of trade magazines in attempt to call out Google.

The ad-tech vendor said it was amplifying the quiet complaints of some in online advertising that Google's approach is bad for advertisers. The print component (above) is called "Breaking Down Google's Walled Garden."

The effort is just the latest conflagration in adland in recent months, one in which the players take their arguments from the back rooms to public view. The disparate battles, which a number of executives have referred to as "the Trumpification of adland," reflect the pressures facing industry players in a fast-changing ad landscape and a tumultuous economy. If change is the new normal, so too might be the nasty fights.

SAG-AFTRA last fall went after marketer darling Droga5 for allegedly violating union rules in producing ads. The Association of National Advertisers and the 4A's are waging a cold war over media-agency practices that could turn hot depending on the results of an ongoing ANA investigation.

In an interview TubeMogul CEO Brett Wilson said that in the past year Google has thrown up "walled gardens, pulled Youtube inventory out of AdX, told advertisers you can only buy Youtube through software through [Google], blocked third-party viewability and fraud reporting and told advertisers they can't use their own [data management platforms]." Contrary to Google's claims that these moves are being made for consumers and publishers, "what's really happening is Google is doing it to increase their own market power," he said.

Only about 1.5% of TubeMogul's spending was tied to YouTube inventory in the fourth quarter, so this latest ad campaign is not a direct response to Google's move to cut off third-parties' access to the inventory, said Mr. Wilson. "This campaign is just to help create a conversation that Google is both a media publisher and a software company, and sometimes that creates a real conflict," he said. The campaign, which lives at www.tubemogul.com/independence, will be running for two months.

Google declined to comment on the campaign.

"There's truth in what [TubeMogul] is saying," said Andrew Swinand, media agency vet and co-founder of VC network Abundant Ventures, consultancy Transparent Media and digital shop Frequency 540. "More and more, people will be questioning and thinking about flexibility, transparency and neutrality."

When asked if he or his firms still work with Google, Mr. Swinand said, "Everyone does. You have to." He emphasized that he would continue to work with Google even if there were additional options. "I think they have a high-quality product, but again I applaud TubeMogul. Google throws their weight around. At minimum, let's acknowledge what it is."

In an industry grappling with new digital technology and media, all established players are fighting for market share and relevancy, and power dynamics are shifting.

"This is like 'Game of Thrones,'" said Rob Griffin, chief innovation officer of Almighty and former Havas digital executive, in an e-mail. "Everyone is fighting walled garden versus open web audience targeting. And brands, agencies, and associations are all picking sides."

SAG vs. Droga5

After first targeting Droga5 for using non-union actors in October of 2015, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in January launched an ad campaign attacking the shop. Featuring promoted posts as well as digital banner ads, the effort called on the agency "to stop exploiting actors and pay fair wages." SAG-AFTRA members also showed up at Droga5's office with a petition.

Droga5 is not a signatory to the SAG-AFTRA agreement and the agency denied the allegations leveled at it by SAG-AFTRA. "Droga5 remains a non-signatory to the SAG commercials contract, enabling us to engage in non-union shoots when it is deemed appropriate," the shop said in a statement to Ad Age during the dispute. "However, when managing SAG productions, we always use SAG performers, which include any commercials for SAG-signatory clients or featuring any SAG celebrity talent. In those instances, we abide by SAG rules and pay SAG wages across the board. We do not engage SAG performers in non-union productions."

Although SAG-AFTRA's campaign in part was meant to urge digital agencies and other non-signatory shops to join the union, it also signaled a new sore spot in the trade organization's relationship with agencies. As agencies produce more content online, they're also cutting corners on expensive union talent, since digital content budgets are typically smaller than traditional ad budgets, Ad Age reported at the time.

"I think you're just seeing more tension rise to the surface," said Brian Lesser, U.S. CEO of WPP media agency network GroupM, of all the public spats. "There's a lot of players in the advertising and marketing ecosystem that are under pressure. It's a slow-growth to low-growth macro economy. We've had a lot of volatility in the stock market in the first quarter. You've seen the bottom fall out of the ad tech market and clients are under increasing pressure to cut costs within their businesses. That places more pressure on all of their partnerships and vendors -- media agencies in particular."

ANA vs 4A's
For a sprawling public fight in adland, one need look no farther than the ongoing ANA-4A's tussle over media buying and planning practices.

The issue dates back to March of last year, when former media agency executive Jon Mandel used a speech at an ANA event to allege that media agencies were letting undisclosed rebates from vendors influence their work on behalf of clients. The organizations created a joint task force to tackle the issue and assuage concern among clients and agencies, but that collaboration was short-lived when in October, the ANA hired K2 and Ebiquity/Firm Decisions to investigate the issue.

Most recently the 4A's issued its own "Transparency Guiding Principles of Conduct" and the ANA unveiled its hotline to aid the investigation by K2 Intelligence.

Heightened competition across adland and disruption are partly to blame for these public spectacles, explained Liz Ross, CEO of creative agency Periscope and former Interpublic Group of Cos.' media agency executive.

"What's happening is there's a tremendous amount of entitlement and disruption across the space," she said. "Everyone is under pressure to deliver growth, and [they] think the best way to grow is to steal work from the companies you work closest with."

Court of public opinion
Still, it's not yet clear whether this kind of public-affairs strategy actually has much of an effect, especially in the case of Google. TubeMogul's campaign, described by insiders as "poking the bear," is meant to target marketers that "may have the least understanding of what's going on" but still work with Google, said Mr. Wilson. But could it also attract the attention of regulators, such as the Federal Trade Commission?

It probably won't have an impact, said Mr. Lesser. "These are not new accusations being levied against Google. These issues have been discussed over and over again. I don't fault anyone for pointing them out, but these are not new issues or new ideas."

The Justice Department, in 2011, launched an investigation into Google following the acquisition of AdMeld, a tech firm that supported publishers' digital ad sales. More recently, Europe's regulators launched an investigation into Google's search practices.

"Similar to Microsoft, the idea [facing Google] is monopolistic inventory," said Mr. Swinand. He's referring to a Microsoft case from 2000 in which a U.S. district judge ruled that Microsoft used anticompetitive means to monopolize the web browser market. "Setting pricing and limiting distribution becomes something the government will regulate because it limits their trade in crisis."

Fighting it out in the court of public opinion can work, said Ms. Ross, but it can also be damaging. "Everyone loves a David and Goliath story," she said. "TubeMogul can pick a fight with Google and be seen as David without it impacting its day-to-day basis, but if they picked on [a large holding company], they could immediately negatively impact their [own] business." The reason, she explained, is because the ad tech company is more reliant on the holding company for business.

"No matter what happens, everyone is feeling pressure," she said. "I think that's only going to increase as more people feel less and less relevant."

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