Trolling For Transparency, Media's Latest Buzzword

Editor's Note: This column has been updated from an earlier version.

We’ve been hearing and talking a lot about transparency in programmatic media buying, and media buying in general. What is it about that word that increasingly makes my skin crawl? It’s kind of like when everyone talked about  “big data” -- and now it’s just “data” or “data and analytics." Skin still crawling.

The issues around transparency are very real, day in and day out. Looking for perspective, I checked in with Joe Weaver, president and CEO of Promatica Consulting, which tries to work through these issues with marketers arm-wrestling with their media agencies, ad-tech vendors and other partners. Weaver’s been on all sides of the equation: He previously worked at TubeMogul, Mindshare, Omnicom Group, among other agencies.

So what prompts marketers to call him? “The [ad-tech] vendors cause confusion. By the time we talk to [marketers], they’ve heard a variety of different points of view from different people. It becomes a very frustrating process for them, because they do believe in programmatic media and marketing. They understand what it can do for them, but they’re very far from being able to work through what various business models mean for their business and which ones will work,” Weaver explained.

With respect to that new buzzword “transparency," Weaver said “brands have been feeling like they’ve been screwed by the agency. First, by not having financial transparency.” Brand marketers want to know how much the media costs: net vs. gross, where each dollar goes and how the dollars break down between different vendors, depending on how the media is being bought.

There’s also a feeling that objectivity has ceased to exist at the holding-company and media-agency level. Backdoor deals and holding company investments in ad tech have decreased transparency. “What’s happened is now the media investment groups are created to navigate and push more dollars into their own preferred partnerships that are beneficial to the holding company and media agency,” Weaver said.

He called out GroupM parent WPP, in particular, for steering marketers toward ad-tech platforms it has investments in. By using them, marketers are bolstering WPP's revenues. WPP has a $25 million stake in AppNexus, among other ad-tech providers. GroupM’s Xaxis For Publishers technology was part of the deal.

Business Insider reported that WPP agencies spent some $4 billion on Google properties in 2015, along with $1 billion on Facebook and $100 million on AOL. Of course Google, Facebook and AOL each have their own proprietary ad-tech stacks and preferred relationships.

Keeping track of which players have a stake in specific ad-tech vendors, which agencies are units of which vendor, publisher or holding company, and how they're steering clients has become a parlor game.

Transparency can mean different things at different marketers. For example, for L’Oreal, which has worked with Promatica, it means being mindful about where it's going to put its money, the partners it will use and identifying where those partners’ true business interests lie.

“There are a lot of brands that don’t trust the agencies. We believe there’s a better model out there,” Weaver said.

But Weaver goes much further: “Media [agency] investment is dead. It doesn’t do anything for brands in the digital space. It doesn’t do anything for brands in the programmatic space. Once brands figure out they don’t need the dollar leverage to get the rates they want or need, they figure out they don’t need the big agencies.” Now that should have agency executives' skin crawling.

True? False? Or is the reality way more nuanced? Either way, it sounds like he’s on to something.

4 comments about "Trolling For Transparency, Media's Latest Buzzword".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, March 10, 2016 at 11:17 a.m.

    Perhaps Weaver is right regarding the media shops' performance in digital buys but this is far from a given in the "legacy" media arena---especially national TV.

  2. Neil Mahoney from Mahoney/Marketing, March 10, 2016 at 12:09 p.m.

    I spent a lifetime in Marketing Communications --  from ad copywriter to Account Exec to Ad Manager to Marketing Manager to B2B magazine Publisher.  There never was a problem with transparency during the print era.  The Internet's free.  You don't get something for nothing.  Neil Mahoney

  3. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, March 10, 2016 at 1:03 p.m.

    Ed TV pricing is just as transparent as Mud as you well know.....don't upset that Upfront apple cart when the spot market sold adjacent was at a discount.....

  4. Matthew Barrowclough from Apogee Digital Media Partners, March 10, 2016 at 11:20 p.m.

    The word "transparency" Tobi has become a knee-jerk response by agencies and vendors alike to make their solution appear above the rest. Words have a funny way in driving emotional response and marketers have fallen into this guise of believing "transparency" will set them free. The more intelligent inquiry would to be understanding the intentions and incentives of each party. Vendors want you to buy their widget and agencies want you to believe they exist because the dangers of digital are too scary to make decisions alone. WPP pushing clients into Appnexus should not be a surprise to any of us. Why wouldn't they want to safeguard their investment? Wouldn't you want customers to use your partner's solution if you had a referral bonus in place? You absolutely would and so would every other rational decision maker. 

    The deeper conversation marketers need to be having with their vendors are easily captured in 3 questions: 1) How and how much do you pay yourself out of my budget? 2) Can I have full operational visibility so that I am a true partner in understanding what is being done and what is working and why? 3) Can you assure me that the performance bar will be constantly reset to respond to improvements in performance? The first two are what true transparency are. The 3rd insures both parties have alignment of incentives.

    We at Apogee Digital Media Partners have taken up this flag and continue to pursue with our clients. I challenge marketers to think more deeply about the incentives and less about the groupthink. 

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