Commentary

It Is 10 PM, Do You Know Where Your Ad Is?

With rare exception, brands that are built over time, at great expense, and with proper management, culminate in loyal customers and hefty profits. Brand stewardship is not taken lightly because even slight missteps can have disastrous results.

Why then, are some brands putting their equity at risk with online media buys that could end up running their ads on less than desirable sites? (And yes, that could include porn sites.) Worse still, this can happen right under a brand manager's nose and he or she will know nothing about it until it is too late.

This is how it can happen to you.

In placing an order with a website you assume that the impressions will be delivered from that site, or others enumerated in the contract. But if the seller has oversold inventory and has lighter than expected traffic or can't meet the campaign performance goals because of stiff back-end conversion requirements, the seller may "broker" your ad to other sites. This is frequently done without the client's prior approval. In fact, in post campaign reports there is no mention that the impressions were served on sites other than what was in the contract in part because sites involved in the transaction agree to keep the details confidential for fear of sales channel conflict. Secrecy adds to the problem, making it easier for sites to continue brokering the business so that by the time an ad appears someplace online it could be three or four times removed from the original buyer.

In some cases, these additional publishers may be in a similar content channel or part of another network. However, in the face of failing CPA deals, anxious publishers may redirect portions of the business to sites that specialize in delivering clicks and conversions such as game sites that feature incentives for interaction with ads, or forums that encourage members to click through ads. To collect higher impressions in a hurry, a publisher may broker your ads to sites featuring highly trafficked, racy content.

What kind of an impact can this have on a brand? Deadly.

"Any brand's values are reinforced by the media vehicle's values, so ending up in the right spot is paramount," says Robert Passikoff, President of Brand Keys, Inc., a New York City-based brand and customer loyalty research consultancy. "If a brand's strength is reinforced, the audience will pay more attention to the ad and will think better of the brand. If a brand's values are reduced, audiences won't pay much attention to the message, and may actually think less of the brand. So a brand that gets 'brokered' and ends up on a site that they didn't actually buy runs the risk of not only missing the audience they've tried so hard to identify and capture, but actually hurting the brand."

There are several types of advertisers in the marketplace, including many looking for immense volume at a low price. They don't care if their advertising winds up on skinheads.com. It isn't about lasting, meaningful relationships for their product or service. It's simply about immediate, affordable results. As more brand advertisers apply direct marketing criteria to online ad campaigns, however, they introduce the possibility that their agency or publishing vendors will achieve that goal by brokering, which can have consequences that cast a shadow over the Internet as a whole.

How can we step outside that shadow? First, clients and agencies ought to have some savvy in figuring out which web publishers and networks provide transparency in their dealings. Start by asking if the publisher intends to resell the business in order to meet the objectives, and to whom. Second, publishers and ad representatives must be willing to push back on unreasonable demands, and only agree to deliver what is within their ability.

Agencies must examine their online tactics, decide what their ultimate goal is (this campaign or the long term relationship) and consider the consequences of trying to win or keep a client's business with promises of astounding ROI. The ad representative that is willing to meet your price and all your performance demands may still not be the right vendor for your brand. Promising a client the world may not be enough to save you if the client calls and asks, "How did my brand end up on THIS page?"

Brand managers should demand absolute accountability from agencies down to the nth detail of where their campaign messages appeared. Strike publishers off the buy list who are guilty of brokering your advertising without your knowledge or consent.

There is a brilliant public service campaign that puts parents on notice: "It is 10 PM. Do you know where your children are?" The message is simple. Accountability matters.

So, it's 10 PM. Do you know where your ad is?