Six Broken (or Almost Broken) Ad-Tech Promises

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Google has gotten together with a diverse group of marketers, publishers, agencies and industry bodies to create The Coalition for Better Ads in what Ad Age called "possibly the broadest attempt yet to fix online advertising so that consumers don't become obsessed with blocking it."

Ouch! Ten years into advertising's digital transformation, this is a stinging indictment of ad tech's failure to create quality user experiences, and the reason so many consumers have turned on their ad blockers.

With 20/20 hindsight, we see what happened. Over the last decade, the financial rug was pulled out from the "art" side of marketing, leaving a strategic vacuum that ad tech ventures filled with lots of bold promises. Now marketers are realizing many of these promises were a stretch at best or overblown at worst.

So let's take the air out of the most egregious ad tech promises, freeing marketers to make the best use of ad tech, realistically.

1) "We scale audience delivery efficiently."

"Scale" is the currency of ad tech, but the marketer's nightmare. While ad tech can generate impressions and clicks on a large scale, its profit incentive is to generate a lot of scale -- of, perhaps, occasionally dubious quality. Advertisers, however, need quality scale with real people.

This misalignment leads to a broken promise. Wanna see ad tech ventures visibly shudder? Ask them to do a proforma, and you'll hear excuses about how they don't do proformas. Well, that excuse shouldn't cut it anymore.

2) "Our contextual targeting data delivers relevant advertising."

Technology driving contextual targeting data is limited, so this promise falls under the "almost broken" category. Technologically, contextual targeting is limited to on-page keyword matching or cookie profiles with interest classifications. But both options are underpowered, unable to drive genuine contextual advertising because keyword matching can misfire if the keyword has multiple meanings or the interest classifications are too broad to qualify as genuinely contextual. For these reasons, the contextual promise is likely to disappoint for now.

3) "Our big data provides objective business insights."

This promise misrepresents big data as totally scientific, devoid of any human "contaminating" subjectivity. That's just absurd.

All data is a subjective because it is a person who defines how the data is processed, what variables are important and what variables are ignored. It's a person who develops the visualization of the data, making many subjective decisions along the way. Big data should be recognized for the highly creative, albeit subjective, endeavor it really is.

4) "Our native platform/content syndication network delivers better engagement."

Sorry folks, but native advertising and content syndication platforms are already creaking under the weight of fraud and low response rates comparable to other digital ad platforms.

In fact, the engagement capabilities of native and content syndication platforms are razor thin -- resting on their promise of placing ads against pre-defined, broad "interest classifications" at a wide variety of publishers. That's the catch. These platforms are no more immune from the dominance of low-quality inventory, with correspondingly low-quality engagement, than any other network. Content marketing is hot, but these engagement promises often don't live up to the hype.

5) "Marketing automation will drive a unified user experience."

This is another one for "almost broken." Marketing automation will, eventually, drive personalized user experiences. "Eventually" is the operative word.

For now, the worst integration challenges are ahead, as we learn to link first party data with third party platforms. This messy marketing automation transition means this promise won't be realized for a long time to come.

6) "Our buying platform is transparent."

Arbitrage is baked into the very fabric of marketing, from ad networks to publishers and agencies. Reengineering the business and moving from arbitrage to transparency will be painful for a long time. But the process has begun and will accelerate. Transparency, too, falls under the "almost broken" promise category.

While ad tech powers great advertising, we are in a state of transition, which leavesmarketers vulnerable to overblown promises. Understanding where ad tech has not lived up to its promises makes us smarter, and will force ad tech to evolve and do better.