Dentsu's overbilling isn't the problem. Facebook's video reporting isn't the problem either. What's become clear since the initial release of the ANA's Media Transparency Report this summer is that instances of over-billing and false reporting on digital campaigns are symptoms of a larger, more pervasive industry-wide issue: human error plays too large a role in the execution of digital advertising campaigns.
Most marketers and agencies think of their digital ad programs as largely technology-based, but don't recognize that they're often still approaching them through the lens of the traditional advertising model, with media buyers interfacing with sellers, and clients left in the dark as to how their campaigns are really performing against spend. Some brands have tried to account for these issues by eliminating middlemen on the bidding and buying side, and even introducing their own in-house trading desks. Even the IAB is trying to address the problem through the introduction of a new certification program for media buyers and planners.
But no one is talking about the one solution that would eliminate human error altogether: technology-based campaigns that don't treat individual channels as separate and comprised of unique tactics, but instead approaches them all holistically as one large single channel -- from media planning and buying all the way through to execution. This approach, however, would require brands to overhaul their thinking on digital campaigns in a few key ways.
Reimagine the roles of media buyers and sellers
Traditional media buyers' lack of bandwidth and expertise makes it very easy for media suppliers get away with false reporting and low performance in digtial marketing. There are simply too many formats, too many channels, and too many devices for humans to investigate, vet, and deploy properly.
Trading desks and DSPs are the industry's current solution to identifying and bidding on media space in a crowded marketplace. They eliminate the need for relationship-based negotiation, and therefore media buyers on the digital side.
Media sellers, of course, like working directly with media buyers and agencies -- Dentsu being a timely example, but hardly the only one -- because, unlike technology-based platforms, buyers and agencies aren't as easily able to verify click-throughs, traffic rates, and other KPIs.
They're also less likely to be sensitive to issues like ad fraud or have the bandwidth to compare their ads' performance across multiple channels simultaneously and eliminate poor-performing channels in response. Hence the trend of poor performing digital campaigns at a high price tag to so many brands.
Eliminate tech complexity
What a solution like the IAB's certification program (mentioned above) doesn't resolve is that no matter how knowledgeable an individual marketer -- or even a team of marketers -- is, they're inevitably unable to scale to meet the complex demands of multi-channel digital ad and marketing campaigns.
There are several technologies that are meant to assist in solving the issue of scale, but in increasing bandwidth they introduce a new form of complexity defined by multiple technologies that, more or less, serve a single purpose. Even though many of them work across channels, they don't work in tandem with one another. Insights from one technology therefore don't inform the actions of another. Marketers are left making judgment calls on the insights produced, leaving room for human error as in the case of Dentsu and others.
In order to eliminate human error, complicated stacks must be replaced by cohesive solutions, built to address comprehensive campaigns with a single, unified approach. Insights gained from one channel will need to inform actions on another channel. Budget decisions made in this channel must affect media planning in that one. And humans only step in to offer their creative and KPIs; not to manually execute campaign logistics of any kind.
Pay only for performance
Advertisers are accustomed to speaking in terms of unique monthly visitors, time spent, and other analytics that quantify online activity, but these distract from the only real indicator of value: performance. Are ads performing well against the desired KPIs?
One reason why Google and Facebook run such successful advertising programs (omitting Facebook's recent video snafu) is because they sell on performance. Advertisers set their KPIs and budget, and Google and Facebook serve their ads to the audiences that will best help them meet those.
The only other factors that should determine ad pricing on digital channels are supply and demand: Is there space? And how many other advertisers want that space? This is where price negotiation handled by technology comes into play. There's no media seller bluffing to the media buyer, or otherwise selling on emotion. Once a channel has been determined as able to perform well against the advertiser's KPIs, technology will assess the media seller's inventory, predict pricing, and secure the space in real time.
Ultimately, Dentsu's over-billing scandal is just another cry for help from an industry whose thinking hasn't caught up with technology. The technology solutions available to marketers, however, won't reflect the approach that's needed until there's an overall shift in thinking about what actually needs to change, and why we're so dedicated to using our human talent to do the job of technology.