Confessions of a digital media vet: ‘Digital industry ghettoizes itself’

So much of the blame for digital media’s woes is being placed on the Google-Facebook duopoly. But media owners and agencies alike would do well to look in the mirror — and get out of their own way. This, anyway, is the point of view of one digital media and advertising veteran who has worked in the industry for 26 years at a range of traditional and digital media owners, and has also spent time in ad tech companies.

“Publishers have shared all their content on Facebook, so they can boast they have the biggest audience — and then the terms all change,” says this executive, who we’ve granted anonymity in exchange for frankness as part of our Confessions series. There is a reason that TV and outdoor are enjoying a resurgence: “And the reason is because there aren’t 8 million middle men between the buyer and seller.”

Here’s more of what this person had to say, lightly edited for clarity:

Where are the biggest frictions in digital media currently?
The industry — and digital is particularly guilty of this — has become less about the work and more about businesses finding new routes via bits of tech to make marginal revenue gains. If you think about the ad stacks businesses have, there is so much emphasis on what bit of tech might lead to 0.0001 percent of a conversion on something they’re not sure is even real, and less about the impact any piece of work is having on the consumer. Something’s been lost.

You’re talking media owners or media agencies?
Both. With this drive to efficiency, which basically means cost cutting, there has become such a dependence on ad technology — some of which is amazing, lots of which isn’t.

Publishers have to make money to survive.
Of course, but they’ve let this happen. They actively share all their content on Facebook. Anyone that’s worked with those major platforms knows that once you’ve become dependent on them, the terms suddenly change. They’re not daft. A huge part of newspaper revenue used to be around advertisers promoting discounts on their products, and they were hugely dependent on newspapers. And so what did newspapers do? They pushed up the prices. Facebook and Google are only doing the same thing. Why is anyone surprised by that?

The buy side also likes big numbers.
I used to run an ad network and our two best-performing ad placements were so far below the fold you couldn’t see them. And that made me think, OK, so it’s not genuine. Though statistically, they’re the best-performing placements.

So what was driving that, fraud?
No, it was just the tech. It could have been driven by the retargeting networks we used perhaps. Logic would determine though that the two ad placements at the foot of a website were not a great place to be seen.

So that’s an example of the “big number” not really meaning much?
Yes, I don’t think it’s about the big number. And yet, by far the vast majority of money in the digital landscape is predicated on the big number. But what is it really? There’s a reason the TV market is having a bit of a boom at the moment. And broadcasters like ITV, which everyone thought was dead five years ago, in particular, are thriving. Because it’s a simple process. You can go to ITV with a campaign kit and out it goes. The problem with the digital industry is it can’t get out of its own way. It ghettoizes itself so much.

Is that because digital media still has an inferiority complex with traditional media?
No, it’s a superiority complex. That age-old quote is: If you’re the cleverest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. Well, in digital media, the majority of people are desperate to be the cleverest person in the room. The whole industry could do with regaining a bit more humility on both a personal and a corporate level.

You mentioned media agencies also over-prioritizing efficiencies? 
Agencies have driven efficiency by building up their own programmatic trading desks, which I totally understand. If you can create a world where you don’t need 10 people to do one task but can use tech instead, I totally buy into that. But we have lost our way a bit. The focus is now on media agencies trying to replicate the position some of the media owners are in.

By creating more content, like a publisher would.

We’ve all started talking about editorial stuff as “content,” like it’s this transferable thing. And I’m as guilty of it as anyone. My favorite comedian, Stewart Lee, nailed it recently when he named his new show “Content Creator.” Not all creative programming is created equal. For newspapers and publishers to say it’s the fault of Google and Facebook, well, it’s not. If the Guardian had managed to put the Independent out of business by doing a better job than them, they would think that’s great. It’s just that the world has shifted, and they have to adapt to new competitors. And no one is stopping Facebook despite their best claims.

More in Media

YouTube is under fire again, this time over child protection

Adalytics Research asks, ‘Are YouTube advertisers inadvertently harvesting data from millions of children?’

Illustration of a puzzle that spells out the word 'media.'

Media Briefing: Publishers pump up per-subscriber revenue amid ad revenue declines

Publishers’ Q2 earnings reveal digital advertising is still in a tight spot, but digital subscriptions are picking up steam.

Lessons for AI from the ad-tech era: ‘We’re living in a memory-less world’

Experts reflect how the failures of social media and online advertising can help the industry improve the next era of innovation.