The Misguided Hype Of Transparency

From the very first moments of last week's Search Insider Summit, the word "transparency" kept arising. I can't say I saw it coming; the only time a form of the word appeared on the agenda (which I wrote) was in the description of the session on click fraud. It tended to arise in a different context in the sessions compared to the hallways.

On stage, the discussion generally centered on technological transparency. Consider its context in the click fraud debate. Every so often, a cover story in a trade magazine, a lawsuit from a disgruntled marketer, or a research study from a click fraud monitoring company reignites the click fraud discussion. Of course, all eyes turn to Google, or more specifically to Shuman Ghosemajumder, Google's click fraud ambassador, so to speak. Shuman then updates his slides that show how Google refunds marketers for more invalid clicks than are likely fraudulent (I'm borrowing and simplifying his language for brevity's sake).

Each time Shuman updates his slides, Google gives him a little more leeway than it previously did in sharing the company's official standpoint, metrics, and methodology. Shuman mentioned to me last month how Google keeps giving him a longer leash, as the sensitivities of its executives adjust. You can argue whether Google's doing this for the greater good or its own self-interest, though with the company's market share and leverage, the two overlap heavily. Ultimately, what's clear is that the search giant is becoming more transparent. This is great news for marketers, but it's also evolutionary. It was a matter of time, with forces propelling Google down a predetermined path. It's similar to how media's evolution from town criers to the printing press to television to the Internet has made politics, business, and other disciplines become more transparent.



Transparency also came up during the sessions in reference to Yahoo, but in a different way. Yahoo's new advertising platform, by factoring in ads' performance, offers less transparency than when ads were ranked strictly by bid price. Here, transparency is trumped by the greater good of relevance, which is better for Yahoo and its users, and thus its marketers as well.

Bringing up transparency with Yahoo's platform is like saying the restaurant Daniel in New York City is less transparent than McDonald's because its chefs are hidden in the kitchen rather than flipping burgers in front of you. What matters here to diners is that they're getting a better meal at Daniel or a cheaper meal at McDonald's; transparency is a non-issue. Yet we keep discussing questions like whether the loss of transparency hurts marketers. As a panelist who was on stage when the question came up, I loved it -- it's an easy question to answer, one that lends itself well to sound bites, and on stage you never want to think too hard.

In the hallways, I heard marketers talking about transparency in a very different context -- in their relationships with agencies. I heard how a deciding factor in the agency-selection process for one marketer was how transparent the agency was during the review. Another marketer was overheard saying that what he valued most about his agency was that each of them could say anything to the other, and that the agency was always upfront and honest. At a time when marketers are so willing to change agencies, and when agencies run the risk of being commoditized (especially search marketing agencies), these discussions of transparency are at the crux of building lasting relationships.

It's a cliché that the real value of an event is more about the hallway conversation than the talking heads on stage, but it's rare to see such night and day handling of the same topic in different contexts. On one hand, it might feel good to pressure Google for more transparency or to pine for the days of yore when Yahoo's platform was more transparent. On the other, you've got a major operational and cultural challenge for agencies to make themselves more transparent in their structure, staffing, reporting, processes, values, and every asset tangible and intangible that they deliver to their clients. It's little wonder that technological transparency gets more publicity.

To return to one of my favorite quotes referenced here previously, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince, "L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux": "What's important is invisible to the eyes" -- or in this case, the ears. It's one more good reason to put down the BlackBerry during the coffee break. You might miss someone telling you what could change the course of your business.

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