Blog: Introducing the technology agent

Chris Williams suggests a third-party technology agent could help advertisers set and assess quality objectives for digital media plans.
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By: Chris Williams

You can dress them up but do you really want to be seen with them? Somewhere hiding in your online media plans are kludge sites that have been pimped up with audience data AND snappy tech stack targeting bought at programmatic light speed. Some are outright fraud and others are the filler that provide “scale” for audience buying. Steak does not exist at $.49 and if someone offers it to you it’s more likely to be a combination of dog food, sawdust and meat glue. If cheap is the only goal then expect to be partnered up with some rather terrifying characters. It’s neither efficient nor pretty.

Eliminating non-human traffic, ensuring viewable positions and avoiding pirated content sites are not measures of quality, these are basic table stakes. No other medium declares having humans as readers as an achievement. Our definition of premium must go well beyond that.

Media quality starts with quality metrics and that means a dispassionate neutral party providing metrics. Then we can start thinking about defining and reaching specific audiences in addition to editorial quality, ad clutter, frequency distribution, editorial adjacencies, size and capability of the ad opportunity and audience engagement with the editorial brand.

For 20 years digital media has extolled the virtues of technology and data. Marketers are now flooded with data from ad tech but need help from a referee to separate cheap from value. Cheap has the dollar value as the only dimension. Some marketers end up buying campaigns laced with fraud, where their ads are one of 20 on a page in barely viewable positions on a bunch of click-bait sites. This is cheap, it has no value. Whenever I hear “fraud is baked into the cost of my campaign because the media is cheap,” I think dog food, meat glue and sawdust.

To get control over the media quality metrics, advertisers need to get more control over the technology, data and reporting. Advertisers have three options; leave it in the media agency, bring it in-house or find an agent to work on their behalf. There are specialized agencies for PR, brand, performance, search, retail, why not a technology agent? The technology agent is briefed on the quality objectives and aggregates the technology, data and reporting functions for the other agencies to see if they are hitting the objectives. The data can be passed over to auditors.

The technology agent answers to the advertiser – they are the referee. As a neutral dispassionate provider of data through reporting, it enables the maxim you manage what you measure. The managing part is setting objectives, defining how it will be measured and then baking the numbers into contracts with achievement bonuses and penalties. Here be dragons. An obsession with driving the lowest cost-per-whatever without a meaningful discussion of quality just prolongs the mess. Again, the technology agent has a role to play in advising what are realistic and desirable goals for the advertiser to set for the media and creative agency and publishers.

A technology agent helps advertisers separate the kludge from sustainable publishing. In some cases current pricing of “media” is a combination of kludge media, data and tech fees which is not transparent to the buyer. By the time the dollar has passed through the gauntlet of programmatic technology the media provider at the other end can receive as little as $.40. Kludge and fraud are happy to receive anything. A technology agent provides the transparency for marketers to make a strategic decision about digital media allocation among three buckets; technology, data or working media. Marketers can then see the variance in results when tech, data and digital media levers are pulled in different combinations. Expect that low-cost media remains low value no matter how much it is dressed up.

So to end, the question remains, who is the technology agent and where do they sit in the grand scheme of things to be most effective? Is it in the media agency? Is it an agency separate from media and creative? Is it within a platform that also sells media? Is it in-house with the advertiser? Is it in a tri-partite governed not-for-profit?

Chris Williams is the former president of IAB Canada, and currently works as principal at Chris Williams Consulting.