Mark My Words (Essential Reading).


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If you look round the room and you can’t see the sucker it’s you’.

Last week Jaguar Land Rover pulled all of it’s UK digital advertising after an advertisement for the Jaguar F-Pace was found to be running in a DAESH promotional video on YouTube.

Mercedes apparently has encountered similar problems, Citi Group too, and IBM and Microsoft as well as Halifax, Argos and The Marie Curie Cancer Fund.

All of whom at one time or another have found their advertising running in white supremacist ‘content’ and on porn sites.

The latter at least a literal case of the digital emperor really having no clothes.

In a statement Jaguar Land Rover said:

“We take our brands’ reputation very seriously and have decided to stop all UK digital advertising activity until further investigation gives us assurance that we can resume it safely.”

This they have now done but it’s worth noting that the F-Pace ad had racked up an impressive 115,000 views in situ before being taken down.

Exactly how many would be jihadists had by then continued their customer journey to the point of contacting dealerships to book a test drive though is, like so much in the digital world these days apparently, both unquantified and unquantifiable.

The problem, or one of the problems at any rate, is what is known as programatic buying.

Programatic is, if I understand correctly, and if not no doubt one of the legions of digital media strategists that I encounter daily on Linkedin will enlighten me, how computers buy and sell media space among each other.

An adaptation of Forex trading platforms, It appears to work, or not as the case may be, without much in the way of active involvement or supervision from actual human beings.

Now what could possibly go wrong with that? I hear you ask. If, like Jaguar Land Rover, a little belatedly perhaps.

Of the 15% of the 60 billion USD annual digital advertising spend bought programatically it is estimated that as much as 12% of it is probably ‘misplaced’.

And at the risk of sounding a little cynical at this point surely if you don’t know where your advertising budget is being spent then how do you know if  it’s being spent ?

Which, moving on from programatic buying, brings us to simple good old fashioned fraud.

In late December, the ad fraud detection firm White Ops uncovered an operation that in their own words: “elevates ad fraud to a whole new level of sophistication and scale”.

Major publishers including The New York Times, The Economist, Vogue, ESPN and Fox News were then between them, they discovered, being taken for “at least 5 million USD a day” by just one highly sophisticated Russian hacking operation.

Like all the best scams it’s remarkably simple. But please don’t try this at home.

By creating spoof versions of publishers’ URLs, which contain nothing more than what’s needed to host advertisers’ real video content, and by then ‘playing’ the content through a simulated browser while a bot creates fake mouse movements, the fraudsters generate ‘impressions’.

Social login information and randomly generated clicks and interruptions mimic human behaviour and help to fool detection.

The numbers are, as digital numbers often tend to be, staggering. In this case alone the Russians had created more than 250,000 spoof URLs and were generating some 400 million fake views a day for several weeks before being detected.

Though, not, of course, actually caught.

For a long time it simply wasn’t polite to talk about any of this in public. It wasn’t that long ago that to talk about the then emerging tech giants in terms of anything so thoroughly old hat as advertising at all marked you out as someone decidedly not ‘digitally native’.

And for a long time there was no worse sin, believe me.

Only four years ago in fact, while co-editing a book on advertising history I found myself caught between the contradictory demands of its co-publishers to either include the word ‘advertising’ in the title (the view of Taschen being that it was familiar and searchable) or not to mention it at all (the view of Cannes Lions being that it was decidedly passe).

For the record the compromise we eventually agreed on was ‘Game Changers.The Evolution of Advertising’.

And very good it is too, even if I do say so myself.

But that was then and this is now. And the days when Facebook and Google got to mark their own homework now finally look like they may at last be drawing to a close.

And not before time. When at least half of your audience isn’t human and a good chunk of the rest is jihadists and white supremacists then it’s not entirely surprising that those who’ve being picking up the tab for talking to them are finally coming to their senses.

Speaking to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting last month Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer of P&G, put it refreshingly bluntly:

“P&G doesn’t want to waste time and money on a crappy media supply chain … the days of giving digital a pass are over …  it’s time to grow up.”

If not quite as refreshingly, or as bluntly, as Professor Mark Ritson of The University of Melbourne in a speech which rather rattled the digerati at the time and which if you’ve not already yet seen you most certainly should. And now:

As a one time, and still occasional, adman myself I can only concur.

The last ten years have been a long strange trip for those of us who, like Professor Ritson, were raised on a diet of robust research and properly audited data.

Because if content is king then context is democracy and the rule of law.

Without context, content alone is nothing. Like smoking marijuana it gives the illusion of creativity without the effort of actually creating anything.

So let’s maybe take a little time out for now from our ninjas and our gurus. And tempting though it may be to replace it with ‘delusional’ lets maybe just drop the ‘digital’ prefix from our increasingly ludicrous job titles altogether while we’re at it.

As I believe the agency Adam&Eve DDB, who bring you the John Lewis Christmas ads among others, have recently done.

Strategist? Planner? Writer? Art Director? Hmm, I rather like the sound of that.

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