Shubhranshu Singh
Guest Article

Ad-tech and the missing stamp of 24 carat assurance

The dust has settled on the gold rush of the programmatic ad-tech boom and big tech has emerged victorious. What now? Our guest author ponders.

Digital is not a genre of marketing. It is the prevalent and dominant lifestyle element common amongst consumers across the world. It is easy, but mistaken, to think of consumers in mouthwatering, single number ‘average’ terms. But it is true that no matter how diverse in their socio-economic standing and geographically dispersed the consumers may be, they are online and not ignorant.

Enhanced internet penetration, cord cutting, live streaming, user generated content, brand presence on social platforms, evolution of memes as a method of marketing, etc. have all been forces that have shaped consumer-facing marketing in the recent past.

But nothing quite stands out the way emerging privacy changes will impact it.

Google, Facebook and Apple are - each in their own way - playing a defining role. Every high tide brings with it its own detritus. The internet boom has been no different with fake news, forced consumer tracking, political manipulation, etc. The development of deepfake neural technology has not helped either since this novel technology has led to the proliferation of a lot of fake content and counterfeiting online - and who knows how much more of that is to come yet! Typical case of a brilliant piece of tech in the wrong hands.

Internet penetration, cord cutting, live streaming, UGC, brand presence on social platforms, and the evolution of memes have shaped consumer-facing marketing.

Now, while these changes impact us all, let us take a look at how brands are in an especially vulnerable position and what can be done to mitigate these risks.

Earlier, when we bought ads on television, we knew the scheduling and placement in exact terms. We knew the content before and after the advertisement. It used to be a safe space where brands were in control. This gatekeeper mentality was shaped from the same earth as brand custodianship. With the increasing reliance on programmatic, tracked, lowest cost auction-purchased ad spot placement, the actionable triggers were no longer in the hands of the brand owners.

Combined with this was the secular decline in linear TV across the world which fuelled the dependence on ad-tech reliant placements of brand messaging. While India has been an exception, and conventional ATL has grown, the pace of growth for digital has remained far higher.

Take the example of the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics. Globally, it performed worse than the Olympics of the legacy media era in terms of reach and all versions of the Olympics starting 2012 have been witnessing this trend.

The opening sessions of the Olympics have been witnessing lower and lower viewership. Average Americans (18-49 year old) are spending 50 per cent less time watching TV compared to a decade ago. These are just indicators of the falling interest of users in traditional TV and consequently less brands are interested to bid at those sky high rates. Nevertheless, TV ad spends are pretty stable while returns are gradually diminishing. Brands are hopping onto the digital bandwagon and advertising on an evolving ad-supported streaming ecosystem in the hopes of reaching the consumers where they really spend time.

Enter programmatic - suddenly we have the possibility of efficiently targeting the right kind of users wherever they go on the internet. Truly mouthwatering but with a massive portion of risk served on the side, namely, that there is no way for a brand to know where its ad is being served! It could come up on a politically sensitive article on some cheap website, that, for all we know, was made only to manipulate elections. It could figure on pages where race or gender or other sensitive content is being discussed.

Programmatic ad-tech was a booming area of innovation and funding in the first decade of the new millennium... The dust settled on that gold rush a few years ago and Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon emerged as the biggest beneficiaries.

Programmatic ad-tech was a booming area of innovation and funding in the first decade of the new millennium. Literally hundreds of new entities were trying to carve out their niche, which was the ability to track consumers, land messages efficiently and boost return on marketing investments. The dust settled on that gold rush a few years ago and Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon emerged as the biggest beneficiaries.

Now, that by itself may not be a bad thing. Google and Facebook (i.e. their own core networks) are much safer and operate with better controls over published content. So, brands will be fine advertising here. But social and search is only close to half the time spent online. The other half is made of pages that advertise on Google Display Network, Facebook Ads and other ad networks.

While the privacy debate was centered around the third party ecosystem, I would not really point to that as the biggest problem. Most disciplined partners and third party vendors never took Personally Identifiable Information in the first place, except for an aberrant few. Now, Google’s FLOC framework and Facebook’s Conversion API are intended to create a seamless experience between consumers and brands while respecting privacy.

The difference is that smaller third party players will be weeded out and we will have eventually given even more control to these gigantic corporations. Depending on what you think of big tech companies, it may be a good or a bad thing. But for brands, this is definitely better as we can ask for some level of control over where our ad content appears.

With machines developing more contextual understanding, we can look forward to a future where the tech titans can take better control of what type of content is broadcasted on which corners of the internet - no brand would want to be at the short end of the stick just because a machine could not differentiate between genuine and fake content.

Ad fraud will never be totally rooted out but we definitely want to minimise advertising faux pas. Failing this, brands run the risk of becoming sponsors of fake news and all those demand-side platforms, trading desks, and ad exchanges, etc. will be of no use to anyone. That is what will define the future of ad-tech in general and programmatic buying in particular. Related to it are the two other areas of Return on Marketing Investment and the sanctity of data in the emerging world about which I shall share my views in future articles.

An ordinary smartphone today has more computing power than the entire planet did when man landed on the moon in 1969. And there are billions of such man-device, device-device relationships today. Its growth is following an exponential path. We cannot expect legacy systems to endure and things to not change. But it is the quality of navigating and managing that change that will determine if marketing is about ideas and excellence or about surveillance, tracking and programmed delivery.

Shubhranshu Singh is global head – marketing, Royal Enfield.

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