Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Robert Webster: Saving marketing’s soul – time to overhaul measurement and attribution

Rob Webster is Founder of  Canton Marketing Solutions. He’s worked in the adtech industry since 2001 and is NDA’s new monthly columnist.

A little before Xmas I was lucky enough to be speaking with a number of industry legends over a festive drink or two. We spoke about the old days of course but also about the many challenges facing the marketing industry in 2022 and beyond.

There are lots of serious issues including the lack of transparency, how little advertiser money gets to publishers, abuse of data, prevalence of fraud, inventory that is not brand suitable and much more. What became obvious to us was that actually the real problems were nothing to do with technology challenges, as a group we could identify solutions to the individual challenges. Instead the challenge was to persuade the market to make better decisions, to buy better media.

Because the issue is that if marketers decide to cut fraud, buy higher-quality inventory or indeed address any of these issues,  they generally don’t see a return in their attribution reporting – so no one will thank them for making the effort and so many don’t. This is the dynamic more than any other that keeps bad practice rife and plagues our industry. 

Now you could say that we all need to behave with more concern for these issues but that is not a fast or reliable way to make change. Instead we need to improve measurement and attribution so that we can all see the benefit of better behaviour. 

Digital marketing gives the illusion of being very accountable and easy to measure. For almost any digital activity marketers can generate a report showing them sales and revenue generated, the return on investment and a whole variety of metrics. As such then surely only quality ad spots that deliver a return for advertisers will be purchased?

It simply wouldn’t be prudent to spend money on fraudulent or low quality ads. In such a world wouldn’t all publishers generate fair ad spend by having a quality audience and good placements? So why do we have issues in marketing where bad actors and fraud proliferate and good publishers are only getting a small fraction of the vast amounts of money that are being spent?

It’s all down to measurement and attribution. 

Trouble in paradise

Digital reporting served advertisers pretty well for years, where whilst there were problems it at least allowed them to directionally improve the media they bought. Scratch beneath the surface and we see that these reports and dashboards hide problems so large as to make using them without caveats and caution actively self defeating.

As an example, for the last 9 months at least and in part for several years, hardly any advertiser setups are able to measure sales reliably on Apple apps or browsers. Meaning that using the data to plan and optimise media buying would result in you effectively ignoring the richest billion users on the planet (Apple users). If sales don’t show up in the reports, media will not be effectively targeted or optimised towards them either manually or by the algorithms.

In this way, using such reports to justify, plan and optimise media without adequate adjustment, actively makes an advertiser’s marketing worse in many cases. The blindspot is not just Apple users either but also other browsers, those with high security settings, those that opted out, those with ad blockers and more – meaning that around 50% (at least) of activity is not able to be tracked correctly by the technology. 

A further problem in a different direction is that Facebook and other walled gardens refusal to allow adserver tracking mean that post-view tracked sales are often duplicated across multiple publishers so whilst half of sales may not be counted, the other half may be counted several times. This came to a head a few years ago when Facebook stopped letting advertisers know the orderIDs of the sales it claimed. 

Great measurement has always needed incrementality to be able to effectively plan direct response advertising. A media channel may be involved in many channels but if the measurement is able to show the level of incrementality is low, i.e. that many of the sales would have happened even without the media, then it is likely that other forms of media may be more effective.

Ultimately great practice is to let the data decide based on incrementality. Yet none of the major tracking solutions being used has a consistent view on true incrementality – the most important metric for assigning direct response budgets. So what we have seen is the foundation of tracking falling apart even when the attribution it supported was already creaking badly. Combine these reasons together and the reliability of measurement and attribution has fallen over. This is both a challenge but also a huge opportunity for those who are prepared to improve their measurement practises. 

These errors in measurement have a huge knock on impact on media buying – allowing low quality publishers and fraudsters to thrive at the expense of quality publishers – but also robbing advertisers of the results they need to grow. Many advertisers only effectively deliver display and social advertising to the half of browsers and users that can be tracked, missing out on huge reach and many of the best potential customers.

I have seen companies selling mobile phones actively not running campaigns on Apple users because they can’t track them in the way they are used too. Even worse, spending is pushed to the bottom of the funnel where incrementality is at its lowest. Ad spots that are unviewable on low quality sites but run on Chrome are being favoured by advertisers over quality placements in view on Apple’s Safari browsers.

Fraudulent inventory is bought without people seeming to mind, because in many cases the tracking thinks it’s performing. I truly believe that all of the major problems we have in digital marketing ultimately stem from poor tracking and measurement techniques. This is not something I might add at the margins, what I describe above is impacting the vast majority of direct response advertiser spend on display, video and social. 

How did we get here?

More relevant today is the question of how has this been allowed to happen? There are a number of important reasons here, chief amongst which is that the major tracking solutions used by clients are all largely owned by GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) and in particular by Google. This is not to denigrate these giants too far, most developed nations value free speech and free press because it allows for debate and for the best ideas to win.

When one platform – regardless of who it is – is censoring your reporting and attribution – often through an agency you think is independent!  – we all lose. 

Ever since Google bought Urchin (which became Google Analytics in 2005) and DoubleClick (in 2007 which became Google Campaign Manager) the Google has had a stranglehold on measurement, with even independent options largely having to ape the standard they write. It is clearly problematic to have the world’s biggest publisher also running most of the measurement options.

As an example of this problem, by owning measurement Google was able to convince advertisers that brand search, searches for a brand’s own keywords should be considered an advertiser channel with the same incrementality as all forms of media. In reality at most 20% of the sales (and some say much less) derived from brand search are incremental – not that Google’s reports will even tell you that. 

Facebook too has taken control of measurement. To measure activity in the Facebook audience network post view you had to use its own tools rather than anything independently verified. A trick many walled gardens are now pulling sometimes with privacy as an excuse but the real reason has more to do with controlling the narrative of how successful the media was. 

What makes these issues all the worse is that many of the people making decisions in the media are not aware of them. Google, Facebook and Amazon all like to tell CEOs and CFOs how much money they are leaving on the table by showing them studies and reports that all come from their measurement systems and contain their bias and view of the world built in.

Combine that with the proliferation of agencies that are now effectively resellers for GAFA (notably Google) and incentivised to sing from the same hymn sheet and you see how much power they have. Planning and budgets which should be based on performance is now largely, for the giants, down to how much they tell advertisers to spend and where. With this in mind is it surprising that their share of total ad spend just goes up and up??

It is for these reasons that if we are to have a healthy, thriving independent marketing ecosystem we must have effective measurement and attribution.

It’s going to be my focus in 2022 to give CMOs the data they deserve to drive growth for their companies and in turn build a healthier digital economy. I hope many marketers will join me on this mission.

I’ll discuss how we start to find out how in part two of this column.