Why the advertising industry needs to stop abdicating responsibility…

“When you have complexity, by nature you have institutional fraud and ingrained mistakes. This will always be true of financial companies. If you want accurate numbers, you’re in the wrong world”

When Warren Buffett wrote the above in one of his famous year end shareholder letters, he was talking about the global financial crisis of 2008. He was referring to how complex/fraudulent/unethical/illegal (delete as appropriate) business practises led to the downfall of enormous institutions.

But for anyone working in advertising it should sound eerily familiar, give the week we’ve just had. Mr Buffett could’ve easily been talking about the current state of the digital.

Our digital house of cards is having its foundations threatened. The unnecessary complexity and misaligned incentives we’ve created have led to chaos, fraud and mistakes like Buffett describes.

It’s clear that we’re in the ‘trough of disillusionment’ stage of digital advertising. Just look at some of the supporting evidence:

It’s certainly time for an industry reset that’s been long overdue for years. It’s time for a ‘truth and reconciliation’ session involving every participant. But that can only happen if everyone comes to the table in good faith. Instead many of the agencies, brands and publishers involved are trying to deflect blame, prolonging the problem.

Subtext

The unspoken subtext behind brands like Verizon and AT&T and agencies like Havas pulling out of YouTube is one of opportunism. They saw a chance to put the boot into a ‘frenemy’ and they took it, claiming along the way that the problems had only come to light recently.

Really guys?

Let’s be honest here. Everyone in the industry has known about many of the problems that cropped up last week for months if not years. Advertising on YouTube has always been a bit of a dice roll, we were just happy to avert our gaze.

By blaming Google, these agencies and brands are actually tacitly admitting that they’ve been wilfully ignorant of the problems.

As this brilliant Digiday piece explains, everyone has an axe to grind with Google. Everyone has ulterior motives.

For brands, it’s about leverage against the humongous power of Google, and finally showing it who’s boss.
For publishers, it’s the opportunity to get some power back.

Blame

But with Google getting all the blame, this allows everyone else to abdicate responsibility, sneaking off while the media focuses on just one part of the problem.

We saw a similar thing happening around adblocking. After initially admitting that they had ‘messed up’, the IAB eventually came out declaring ‘war’ on adblocking. This quick turnaround missed the point spectacularly, and avoided the root cause of the problem – crap, spammy, intrusive ads.

Attacking adblocking is like treating the symptoms of a disease without really getting to the heart of it.

Again, the focus was shifted and the real issue ignored.

It seems like our industry is good at doing that. But we can only get away with it for so long.

This time around Google is taking the blame. Google can take the hit.

But trust me, if things don’t change, it won’t be long until brands, agencies and publishers have the spotlight turned onto their murky practises. The fallout won’t be pretty.

Until agencies, brands and publishers own up to their share of the blame (and truly believe it), the industry is stuck. Things will only become more polarised and complex.

It might be idealistic, but this is our chance to reset digital and move towards maturity. Let’s show some leadership and take it.