At the rate things are progressing in digital media and programmatic trading, the tenuous relationships between advertisers, agencies, ad tech providers, exchanges and publishers are about to come unglued.
While many in the ad industry have had their doubts about programmatic digital, this sector has grown unabated for the last several years. According to eMarketer in 2014 advertisers invested 28.3% of their ad budget in digital media. Their projection is that this will grow to 44.9% in 2020, likely topping $100 billion in total spend. eMarketer estimates that 80% of U.S. digital display activity in 2017 will be transacted programmatically.
Interestingly, since 2014 the industry has become much more attuned to the risks encountered by advertisers when it comes to optimizing (or should we say safeguarding) their digital media investment. Yet in spite of the findings regarding unsavory practices emanating from the ANA’s seminal 2016 study on “Media Transparency” advertisers continue to pour an increasing share of their advertising spend into this media channel.
However, not all advertisers are continuing to embrace digital media quite as readily as they once did. A handful of progressives, namely Procter & Gamble, have begun to rethink the share of wallet being allocated to digital media and programmatic trading. Marc Pritchard, P&G’s Chief Marketing Officer, has been very outspoken in summing up his company’s position quite succinctly; “The reality is that in 2017 the bloom came off the rose for digital media. We had substantial waste in a fraudulent media supply chain. As little as 25% of the money spent in digital media actually made it to consumers.”
Given Mr. Pritchard’s comments it has been quite intriguing to monitor the legal developments in two high profile lawsuits that have recently been filed.
In the first case, Uber is suing Fetch Media, its digital agency suggesting that it had “squandered” tens of millions of dollars to “purchase non-existent, non-viewable and/ or fraudulent advertising” on its behalf. Uber has further alleged that the agency “nurtured an environment of obfuscation and fraud for its own personal benefit” and that of its parent company, Dentsu Aegis Network. To be fair, Fetch Media has denied what it says are “unsubstantiated” claims by Uber which it claims is designed to draw attention away from their “failure to pay suppliers.” Allegations include that the agency acted as agent for Uber in some markets and executed principal-based buys in others and that they earned and retained undisclosed rebates tied to Uber’s media spend.
The second case involves RhythmOne, a technology enabled media company and its partner dataxu, a programmatic buy-side platform/ applications provider. RhythmOne originally filed suit regarding $1.9 million worth of unpaid invoices. Dataxu filed a counterclaim alleging that RhythmOne “used a fake auction to consistently overcharge” them and suggested that RhythmOne also “procured inventory from other exchanges, and then marked it up,” both violations of their partnership agreement. As an aside, for the $1.9 million in payments that dataxu admittedly and intentionally withheld from RhythmOne, going back to January, 2017, it is likely that dataxu’s clients had been billed and remitted payment to them. Which raises questions as to how and when their clients will be made whole.
Of note, both of these lawsuits delve into a range of topical issues that pose risks to most programmatic digital advertisers:
- Agencies executing principal-based buys, rather than acting as agent for the advertiser.
- The retention of undisclosed rebates tied to an agency’s use of advertiser funds.
- Non-transparent fees and mark-ups being tacked on to the actual cost of media inventory by multiple middlemen (i.e. agencies, DSPs, exchanges).
These are issues that advertisers should familiarize themselves with and address through the development of a comprehensive client/ agency contract. In addition, advertisers must vigilantly monitor supplier compliance with the terms of those agreements to insure full transparency and, importantly, accountability when it comes to the stewardship of their digital media investment.
As these two cases highlight it is dam difficult for an advertiser to accurately assess the value of digital inventory that is being proffered on their behalf by their agency and adtech partners. Beyond establishing what percentage of an advertiser’s digital dollar actually goes toward media inventory, these separate, but related legal actions demonstrate that it is not just a lack of transparency that advertisers must worry about, but a lack of ethics. When it comes to programmatic digital media the American artist, John Knoll, may have said it best;
“Any tool can be used for good or bad. It’s really the ethics of the artist using it.”
There are steps that advertisers can take to both safeguard and optimize their digital media investment. If you are interested in learning more, contact Cliff Campeau, Principal of AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary consultation.