Tracking, targeting and programmatic: The great online ad debate

The ACA's Global Marketing Conference played host to a lively debate on whether new technology in the online ad industry is truly a positive step.

The rise of targeting and programmatic technology in digital advertising offers a fundamental promise of greater reach and engagement — but does it also mean an increased risk in the message being rejected, and lead to a rise in ad-blockers?

A lively debate on those topics took place at the Association of Canadian Advertisers’ Global Marketing Conference in Toronto April 27. The debate looked at the industry’s investment in programmatic and ad tech and the effects that it has had on advertising and media — and whether or not it has been a positive development for the industry.

On one side, arguing in favour of new technologies were Antonia McCahon, global digital acceleration director at Pernod Ricard and Dan Burdett, head of eBay Labs EMEA. Opposing them were advisor and author of The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman and David Wheldon, CMO at Royal Bank of Scotland. The debate was moderated by Globe and Mail advertising and marketing reporter Susan Krashinsky.

Hoffman, living up to his moniker as a contrarian, issued a hard no on ad tech. For starters, he said, the technology is “essentially enabled by tracking. Tracking is, I believe, an evil that we don’t need.”

Although, he added that in a hypothetical future where tracking were to be done away with, “Then ad tech can do what it wants.”

Wheldon added that tracking and targeting technology may mature and become more useful when the time comes that a “fair value exchange” is perceived between the advertiser and the person giving up their data.

The two also argued that the automated buying and selling of ads was part of the ecosystem driving down the quality of media, giving way to the rise of click bait, low-quality content and fake news. “There’s utility in buying good quality media space from good quality publishers, instead of spending our money all over the web on the crappiest possible places because we’re going to save a couple of cents on our CPMs,” said Hoffman.

Those low-quality media sites, Wheldon said, are part of a much larger societal problem. “Misinformation is absolutely corrupting the world,” he said. Both alleged that the rewards of these new advancements, if any, had been quite low — using Solve Media’s statistic that people are more likely to complete Navy SEAL training than to click on a banner ad.

On the opposite side, McCahon was quick to point out that no technological progress will be perfect, and that even though ad-blocking is on the rise (penetration of ad-blocking software is at 24% in Canada, higher than that in the U.S.) that shouldn’t say that current ad tech practices as a whole are flawed. “When people are blocking our ads, they’re sending us a message to get our acts together,” she said. “We’re being forced to evolve.”

The issue is not the technology itself, she said, but the way agencies and advertisers are leveraging it. Without the tech, she said, advertisers will go back to what she calls the “carpet-bombing model.”

“Instead of something that’s precise and targeted, we go back to pages just filled with advertising,” she said.

As for data, McCahon added that collecting and selling data is not unique to digital advertising. “Even before the days of ad tech, there were companies like American Express who held enormous amounts of personal data about people,” she said.

Burdett said the data can be extremely useful to advertisers, and that comments like those from Wheldon and Hoffman’s were scare-mongering and holding back progress. “We have to make progress in this world. We can’t just sit and say ‘the way the world is is perfect.’” If used responsibly, he said tracking, targeting and programmatic can provide accurate measurements of cause and effect and make audits of media companies easier.

Hoffman said in order to maintain the integrity of online advertising, three rules need to be adhered to: All first-party tracking should be opt-in, there should be no third-party tracking whatsoever and there shouldn’t be any data sales. All of the panelists agreed that some sort of code of conduct would be ideal in moving forward in digital advertising.

In a live-polling exercise, the audience was asked both before and after the debate whether they thought ad tech was a win-win concept or a lose-lose. Prior to the debate, the two were almost evenly split, with 53% voting “win-win.” For all its emotion and subsequent reactions from the audience, following the debate the results only changed by a single percentage point, with “win-win” coming in at 52%.

Pictured, left to right: Dan Burdett, Antonia McCahon, moderator, The Globe and Mail’s Susan Krashinsky, David Wheldon and Bob Hoffman. Photo by Jen Allison