Challenging The Status Quo In Programmatic: Google Is Right, But It’s Not Enough


In the world of programmatic advertising, the status quo has created a national scandal. The Times recently published several front-page exposés on the programmatic world, including ‘Big brands fund terror through online adverts’ and ‘Taxpayers are funding extremism,’ alleging that household brands, as well as the UK government, the Guardian, and Channel 4, had been advertising alongside extremist or inappropriate content online. This has led to Alphabet (Google’s parent company) being summoned in front of the government, and a reported 250 brands and organisations pulling their ads from Google platforms, amounting to millions of pounds of ad revenue.

There are no winners here. It isn’t the brands, who have to suspend their advertising, in turn, losing exposure, nor the agencies, nor Google. This current situation is untenable. When you have a situation where a brand’s money is going to producers of Jihadist content, the model is clearly broken – but not beyond repair.

In light of these developments, there’s a risk that Google UK MD Ronan Harris’s calls for more transparency in online advertising might get lost. While he’s right that other stakeholders in the digital economy must play a part in transparency and viewability, he’s not going far enough. It shouldn’t be down to a single company or a group of companies in the same industry to set the standards for brand safety and ad measurability.

The likes of Facebook, Google and agencies cannot be allowed to continue to mark their own homework and call it ‘transparent’. Media owners, creative and media agencies and advertisers are not without bias. They all have a vested interest, they are not impartial and thus any transparency standards they agree upon cannot be considered impartial.

It’s not just Google at fault for this current storm; the whole industry must ask itself some tough questions. Agencies, currently seeking opportunity wherever they can find it, must also shoulder some of the blame for failing to protect their clients from negative exposure. The overworked brand-side marketer rarely has the time or the expertise to ask the important questions about how their programmatic ads are being run to protect their brand effectively. Agencies aren’t the enemy, but the current brand-marketer relationship is broken.

So what’s the solution?

The first step is to stop allowing agencies and ad platforms to measure their own results. The murky world of online advertising can only be cleaned up when it is vetted by a truly independent body. It is not just advertisers that need protecting in this world but consumers too. In order to protect businesses and consumers alike, at a minimum, this is an initiative which needs to be led by a trade body such as the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB); ideally, the government would be involved in policing this too. Greater transparency and greater protection is beneficial for all.

Brands and agencies also need to work together much more closely to make sure everyone knows what adverts are being placed where and at what cost. In the modern world of digital advertising, this requires both time and deep technical knowledge of a very complex space.

Advertisers need to question everything in their technology stack and then take back ownership of this issue. When brands can precisely, accurately and knowledgeably question their online advertising spend they are going to see greater transparency and they are going to see a better return on their investment. A marketer who’s armed with correct and accurate knowledge of the issues and has the time and expertise to examine what is working and why will always arrive at the right outcome for their business.

The voices calling for change in this industry are getting louder, and the appetite for better ways of working is growing. When over 250 brands stop advertising on one of the world’s most visible platforms, it is clear that that investment in online marketing doesn’t necessarily deliver what it should, and standards have got to improve. We should not lose this momentum, continuing to question the status quo until there is proper regulation and greater transparency in the digital advertising ecosystem.