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AdTech Reboot

Did you hear the one about a “deprogramming” session for a programmatic adtech pro?

Picture of Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times
Picture of Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times

I am struck at how cultish many programmatic tech folks sound. The echoes of their blind devotion ring loudly as they spew their vitriol to anyone who challenges their cult. I experience the backlash myself (this article describes my experience: but the irrational support of too many in adtech of adtech sounds eerily familiar to the closed mindedness of many cults. They brush away facts with rationale. They reject criticism with lots of, “what about isms.” Mostly though, they demonize anyone who threatens their “world view” which, in this case, is that the current adtech economy is great and just needs more tech or time to make it all sing.

These folks bear all the hallmarks of a cult member deeply immersed in a make-believe world that ignores facts, reality and common sense.

Given the cult-like attitudes of adtech people, a funny scenario keeps playing out in my head; What would a cult deprogramming session work if the cult member was a programmatic adtech pro? How would the 4-step progression of deprogramming principles (described below) play out with adtech folks:

1. Discredit the figure of authority, ie – adtech leaders;

2. Present contradictions (ideology versus reality);

3. The breaking point: When a subject begins to realize the gaps in their thinking when reality can assert itself over ideology;

4. Self-expression: When the subject begins to open up and voice gripes against the cult;

So here is my imaginary intervention deprogramming session (sans the kidnapping part), between an “Exit Counselor” and “Sam,” director of programmatic media at mid-sized global agency.

<open scene>

Counselor: Hi My name is Jesse. I am your exit counselor to help you realize that your programmatic media buying habits are hurting you, harming your clients and causing real pain to just average “Judy Consumer.”

I know you don’t want to be here right now but I promise, once we are done you will be free – free to create digital media plans that actually work well for your clients and for “Judy Consumer.”

Let’s begin.

Sam: Wait a minute. I don’t have a problem – you have a problem. I don’t want to be here and you can’t change my mind no matter what you say.

Counselor: I understand how you feel but we are here because of your uncritical attachment to the adtech faith which relies on a false belief in scale, automation and AI. These technologies have wreaked a lot of damage on everyday people like your Mom and on big companies too who spend a lot in advertising but can’t get their money’s worth.

Adtech has overpromised and underdelivered while creating the environment for fake news, fake clicks, fake impressions. Wouldn’t you say that qualifies as an overpromise?

Sam: Well maybe but there is a lot of good that adtech has done.

Counselor: Like what?

Sam: Hmm, for one, it has as allowed advertisers reach scale audiences.

Counselor: It is true that adtech allows advertisers to buy lots of impressions but do we really know what percentage of those impressions represent real people? Everyone knows the percentage of fake impressions is way too high and that’s due to a very murky adtech supply chain.

Sam: But there are these traffic verification firms. Their job is to clean up the traffic to screen out fake traffic.

Counselor: I would agree that the idea behind traffic verification is well intentioned but since they only do traffic sampling, a lot of bad traffic flows through just fine. No one really knows how much fraud still runs through adtech pipes but we can all agree it is “not zero.” More than that, the business of verification is to score all traffic – not to stem the sources of bad traffic.

Ad traffic verification firm like DoubleVerify charge on a CPM basis so their job is to keep number of impressions high – real ones and fake ones.

But let’s move on. What else do you think adtech has done well?  

Sam: The advances in AI and marketing automation has allowed marketers to micro-target audiences. By analyzing all of a user’s behaviors, AI can deliver relevant ads to the right people.    

Counselor: Is it healthy to normalize the internet’s tendency to monetize every single moment of a person’s online existence?

Sam: But people want personalized ads and adtech can deliver that.

Counselor: There has been quite a few stories about how adtech delivered personalized ads that was very distressful to people because of relentless and badly timed targeting practices.

Let’s take two real world examples. One woman called off her wedding but kept getting painful reminders with all the ads she was seeing for wedding related products. Or imagine the pain a couple feels who lost their fist baby in pregnancy yet are still served baby related ads for a long time after their loss. And these are overt examples we know of. No doubt there are so so many more we never hear about.

Surely we can agree that these ads are highly damaging.

Sam: Ya I can see that but that’s how adtech works even though maybe it shouldn’t work that way.

Counselor: Can you imagine a way for adtech to still serve advertisers well without all the trust issues adtech has today?

Sam: That’s an interesting question. When I think about it , there is lots we could do differently. For instance, we can just stop tracking people and start using topic data to target real people. Or, ads could be placed on pages matching the precise topic on the page instead of how contextual is done today via generic pre-defined interest classification category targeting.

More than anything, we could go back to KPIs that reliably measure actual sales.

That’s what I would do. In the end, I think we can create adtech to show baby product ads only people who wanted to see baby product ads.

Counselor: That’s really interesting. Do you think it is technically achievable?

Sam: Oh sure but that changes the business model and that’s the hard part. Today’s adtech makes money in many ways with hidden fees and/ or low quality traffic.

Counselor: What you laid out makes perfect sense. What do you think you want to do about it?

Sam: I sure don’t want to keep making money baiting people and I have to admit that adtech v1.0 is a toxic economy – not really healthy for anyone. I guess this really cant be allowed to go on anymore…

<Sam looks off into space for a long while>

Excuse me please, I realize I’ve got a lot to do. We’ve got build out a new type of adtech economy and there’s not a moment to waste. It’s time for adtech v2.0….

<end scene>

That, at least, is how I imagine it.