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The Problem With Ad Tech Isn't The Tech

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

This piece was first published as a Contributor Op-Ed for MediaPost





I’m a guy. And given that, it’s astonishing how many Tampax ads in Spanish I’ve been fed on my laptop over the past few months.


Now I do happen to speak Spanish. But no matter how many ads you send, and in how many languages, I will never menstruate. I am neither a potential consumer nor an influencer in the purchase of Tampax products. Procter & Gamble’s ad dollars are 100 percent lost on me. 

The problem is not bad ad technology. The problem is the astonishingly misaligned incentives between big advertisers and the media buying agencies they employ. 

Many media buying agencies are regularly compensated with a percentage of the dollars they spend on behalf of clients. They recognize that revenue when that budget is spent. Frequency caps? Good-bye. Targeting? Everyone. Spend baby, spend. Do dog owners get cat food ads? Yes! Are men getting feminine hygiene product ads? Sure! Every dollar not spent means less for the agency, so not-really-close is close enough. 

The weird thing to me is this: The heat that is starting to come down from large advertisers onto the digital advertising ecosystem seems somewhat misplaced.

Tampax parent Procter & Gamble’s Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard has ripped the ad tech industry and threatened to stop buying digital ads that can’t provide third-party, accredited, audited measurement. And sure, that’s a legitimate complaint. There are lots of pernicious irritants. Bots and fraud. Facebook’s conveniently misstated video numbers. Metrics so ambiguous they become meaningless. 

But my take is: That’s maybe 10% of the real money-wasting problem. The technology available in the digital ecosystem isn’t crap – there is plenty of remarkable technology sitting on top of lots of remarkable data waiting for highly targeted deployment. Don’t believe me? Check out The Trade Desk’s remarkable tech stack and stock performance. 

And yet someone late last year was spending P&G’s money to make sure I saw that Tampax ad 10 or 12 times. That’s not bad technology. That’s a media buyer who’s decided there was no way to spend the allocated budget within the allocated time frame and instead chose to broaden the defined audience at fractional value. Go back and tell the client they budgeted too much for saturating their target? Say what? The quarter ends in two weeks! 

So what we get is digital targeting that looks an awful lot like traditional media blunt instrument, yes-I-know-I’m-paying-for-eyeballs-I-can’t-use ad buying. We get Vietnam- style carpet-bombing body counts instead of Desert Storm-style cruise missile strikes on tightly defined targets. 

The implications of this lack of agency-advertiser incentive alignment are reverberating through the entire media industry. Rather than pay high CPM’s for direct-hit targeting, the ecosystem is hung halfway across the bridge from the traditional media era to the digital one. 

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