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AdTech Reboot

The adtech blame game is why adtech is stuck.

Judy Shapiro

Judy Shapiro

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

Judy Shapiro

Editor-in-Chief at The Trust Web Times

I caught a Twitter thread recently about how $300 Billion of media will flow through programmatic pipes. There was a pile-on of comments about all things that plague programmatic – fraud, targeting conundrums, tech tax et al. What was notable was that everyone was blaming someone else for all that plagues programmatic.

Agencies blamed programmatic platforms for murky supply chains.

DSPs blamed agencies for a lack of expertise.

Exchanges blamed the data used.  

Publishers blame SSPs and exchanges for low margin on their content.

And everyone blames, rightly, Google and Facebook for just about everything else given these two firms stranglehold on our industry.

How can we advance the industry if we are too busy pointing fingers at each other?  The short answer is we can’t.

As it is, digital marketing is a tough category to drive accountability because so many tech firms all have a hand in the execution; digital media, data management, CRM functions to name just a few. Each of these broad functions go deep with a dizzying array of tech firms who operate in each zone.

Let’s look at just one function – digital media buying. It is as complex as the tri-dimensional chess played on many episodes of Star Trek. There are DSPs, Exchanges, Data providers, Traffic verification firms, privacy compliance platforms, direct buys. Within each function, like nesting dolls, there are often dozens of companies who have to synchronize and harmonize to work together in each function.

No wonder accountability is hard to come by. For advertisers who can afford an agency, the agency’s core job is to be custodians of their clients’ marketing outcomes. While this sounds right in theory, in practice agencies are often technically outgunned so they can’t really vet the entire adtech stack to see who is responsible for what. To solve this problem, some larger agencies require their clients use the tech stack they invested in with a big “trust us” bow tied on top to make it palatable to brands. Aside from the tedious fact one adtech size most definitely does not fit all brands, unfortunately, this actually exacerbates the impenetrable accountability wall.

Smaller brands and agencies are, too often, bystanders in the dirty and messy business of adtech accountability without much ability to technically drive discovery or predictable outcomes into the digital marketing processes.   

Busting Adtech black boxes.

To break through the accountability lock jam, means we focus on core elements of digital marketing to understand who has the clear line of sight of a function. This is the only way to untangle adtech’s Gordian accountability knot.

1) Put a pause on programmatic buying and opt for alternate marketing channels and programs.

Sounds dramatic but is it really?

We all understand that no one knows exactly what programmatic media delivers in terms of real people. While there are point solutions that try to define this, they lack scope or depth of ability to define a real impression from a fake one at the scale that is helpful.

Many people, like Dr. Augustine Fou (@acfou) and Bob Hoffman (@AdContrarian) and have sounded the alarm about programmatic’s bottomless pit of dysfunction and dishonor.

This reality is a big reason for adtech’s endless blame game. Everyone is looking for someone else to take the fall when programmatic media performs badly since programmatic media buying has many points of failure. Pinpointing which point of failure is “the one” is like worrying about which bolt failed when the Titanic sank. It’s quite literally academic.  

I believe programmatic media is built (perhaps unintentionally) to defy real accountability so giving it a rest may be the smartest way to go especially if you are in eCommerce/ sales, B2B, advocacy or demand/ lead generation.  If you fall into any of these categories, here are a few channel options that can help wean you away from programmatic:

  • Redirect to direct media buying. This is how media got done for decades so while it does have more labor costs associated with it (which advertisers will need to acknowledge and compensate agencies for) the extra cost is more than offset by the significantly smaller, quality buys that reduce the gross cost of media buys with better outcomes. Let’s fact it – most advertisers really don’t need the scale that programmatic buying provides.
  • Focus on content development and distribution in lieu of programmatic media. We all understand content marketing is highly effective but it has been difficult to operationalize since all elements, heretofore, were manual – content data/ planning, content creation and content distribution.  Agencies, for their part are less interested in adopting content-centric technologies because, as it is, content marketing drives a lot of revenue by doing it “old fashioned way.” Without realizing it, agencies are likely to relive the early days of adtech where adtech ate their margin lunch. Even now, talent tech platforms like Fiverr and eLance have already taken a big bite out of the content marketing apple. Unless agencies innovate when it comes to content marketing and make it truly accountable – they are likely to get displaced by tech – again. There are a bevy of new technologies that are now available to marketers; predictive topic data to tell brands which topics have high conversion capability pre-campaign, automated quality content distribution and topic-centric attribution. * Tech-powered content marketing reduces need for complex adtech stacks and allow for quality outcomes.
  • Look seriously at productive mega-retailer ad platforms. Quietly, major retailers are creating ad platforms that allow advertisers to promote their solutions in the right moment. From Amazon and Instacart to Walmart and Target, these ad platforms are emerging as a seriously good options for many types of marketers.  

2) Simplify adtech and martech stack.

Let’s get real and acknowledge how many different elements a brand has to deal with in adtech; brand safe media buys, data compliance, performance analytics. Then you have martech with its focus on sales enablement; ABM, CRM, marketing automation to name just a few. With all these elements, a brand needs an army of engineers, adops and data folks just to keep it together. When one thing fails – the whole edifice collapses with everyone looking around to be sure the blame does not fall on them.

The answer is clear albeit not easy – start pruning the tech stacks to focus on those technologies that are synced to business and marketing goals. If, for instance, content marketing is a priority – is that ABM platform really useful right now? Or if there is a need to amp up sales conversion, is programmatic media really the best choice? With effective tech pruning, you can scale up conversions because it is easier to understand what’s working well.    

3) Invest in tech for the long game – don’t just “use” it.

This may sound like I’m contradicting above point but stay with me. One of the best ways to drive adtech accountability is to bring this expertise into the organization with tech folks who can be measured on performance and ROI. There are critical adtech functions like adops and data expertise that must be well cared for. There are two ways an organization can accomplish this. One option is for companies to hire internal adops teams. While this is a heavy lift for many firms, it ensures that ROI is a deeply visible part of the marketing function.  Alternatively, a company can invest in an outsource tech management firm like Valor Digital with deep chops in media, technology and data engineering. Both options will stop the blame game madness in favor of clear answers to marketing’s most basic questions.

Generally speaking, achieving accountability in adtech is so complex that it is tempting to throw up one’s hands in defeat.

The antidote is to bravely confront the complexity with fortitude, determination and a plan.

It’s important to realize the days of adtech’s pure SaaS platforms that have a lot features with little accountability is giving way to a more balanced ecosystem where tech is accountable because it is discoverable. Achieving this new level of accountability is not for the timid but should be seen rather as an investment that allow brands to reach the accountability promised land.

*Author’s note: Ya – this is a [shameless] plug about our firm’s content marketing tech, Topic Intelligence data and Topic Intelligence Ad Network, designed to operationalize content marketing with predictive topic data, AI driven content development and sponsored content media placement. These technologies allow people to do what people do best while assigning to tech the tasks that tech does best.