I read with interest -- and some surprise -- by Advertising.com's Mollie Spilman. Ms. Spilman tried to make the case that advertisers should not worry about transparency when working with ad networks. Among other points, Ms. Spilman argued that advertisers should not equate transparency with quality, that there is "nothing nefarious about non-disclosure," and that it is a "big mistake" for media buyers to worry about where their clients' ads might show up.
"Nothing nefarious about non-disclosure?" Ms. Spilman should tell that to the folks at Cingular, Priceline, and Travelocity. Ironically, on the same day that Ms. Spilman's column appeared on iMedia Connection, the New York Attorney General's office announced settlements and fines with those companies arising from allegations that their ads appeared on Spyware applications. I suspect that senior management at those companies would have wished for full transparency before the rogue ad placements attracted the attention of the AG's office. More and better transparency is critical to the future growth of the online ad industry.
When it comes to media, quality is in the eye of the beholder...the buyer. How can a buyer or client possibly judge the quality of the placements they are buying if the buy is blind? It's not just about protecting against improper placements, like Spyware. It's also about ensuring proper placements. And it's about ensuring that the ads are seen by the right people in the right places. This will become more and more important as the online ad market matures and becomes more driven by brand advertisers. Blind networks and brand advertisers are mutually exclusive. Transparency as well as a network's first party relationships with publishers and strong network content and privacy standards are critical if we hope that advertisers and their agencies will trust us to the degree that they already trust television and print.
Ms Spilman also argued that the lack of transparency in blind networks is sometimes driven by the desire of certain publishers not to have their participation in a third party ad network disclosed for fears of sales channel conflict or rate card erosion. However that may be, the fact that a network might have some quality sites certainly doesn't mean that media buyers can assume that all of the inventory is appropriate.
I understand that publishers want to protect their brand and their market position. Before joining TACODA, I spent 17 years at Time Warner running divisions at both Time Inc. and HBO. Publishers are sophisticated enough to understand that they can't benefit from the sale of perishable inventory through networks without folks knowing that some of their inventory is sold that way. That's why most quality publishers only work with networks that have a large enough stable of websites to guarantee that no one publisher represents more than a very small percentage of either its total inventory or any of its vertical targets; and, that they do not permit buyers to "cherry pick" specific sites for buys.
As the web becomes a primary place for major advertisers to reach customers whose media habits are changing almost daily, you can be certain that brands will want to protect the consumer equity they have built over the years by being assured in the most transparent way possible that their ads will only appear in "a clean, well-lit environment." You can't ask them to settle for anything less.