Opinion: Marketers shouldn't make tech the enemy

Steve Rubel is chief content strategist for Edelman and one of the leading experts on the evolving media landscape and the blurring lines between traditional and emerging channels.

The mood at most advertising conferences is usually upbeat. The spirit is congratulatory. The heroes — brands, agencies and especially technology — are all cheered. And the long difficult journey to brand awareness and sales is romanticized through rich and informative case studies.

This wasn’t quite the case at the 2016 Association of National Advertisers (ANA) Masters of Media Conference earlier this month in Florida. While there was certainly some of that, the event felt more like a trial. And technology was the defendant.

The ANA chose to focus squarely on the role that technology plays in at least contributing to some of the industry’s major ailments. However, minus any participation by the major platforms — notably Facebook and Google — the narrative was too unbalanced and pessimistic.

Marketers need to hear lessons from the outside, not just peers.

The event program in great detail focused on four key threats to digital marketing: ad blocking, viewability, bot fraud and media transparency. And there was the undercurrent throughout that programmatic media buying has made matters far worse by making it much harder for brands to track where all their money is going.

The DNA evidence to incriminate technology was data. Arguments from the ANA and White Ops revealed just how bad the bot fraud situation is and how it’s getting worse. Forrester’s Jim Nail delivered a methodical and compelling argument that questioned the entire ROI of programmatic advertising.

The problem is the defense was missing. The solutions to these challenges is already being addressed by big technology platforms in partnership with publishers, brands and even consumers.

This is a view that the ANA needs to show the industry too. Marketers, for example, have a lot to learn from hearing more directly from consumers. They’ve long embraced platforms. The same can be said for publishers, which are now somewhat reluctantly turning to companies like Facebook and Google to help them scale both distribution and monetization.

Had such defense “witnesses” been allowed to “testify,” the jury of marketers would have heard how Facebook, Netflix, Hulu, Google and others have dramatically altered consumer media consumption patterns so much that much of the arguments over these display-related desktop-based threats are now slowly becoming moot.

A star “witness” like Facebook, for example, could have detailed how Instant Articles will open up a whole new paid palette for marketers to engage consumers on media brands they trust, while allowing media owners to focus on their core competencies.

Other “testimony” from Snapchat would have showed marketers that there are new ways for brands and publishers to engage consumers in playful ways that inspire creativity and thus greater brand affinity.

Even Medium could have discussed how companies are increasingly now going direct to their audience with their own content in ways that initiate earned media.

The ANA should certainly be lauded for its proactive initiative to ensure the industry doesn’t slip into a programmatic-induced slumber.

However, the solutions to some of the most critical challenges that imperil media buying for the most part are already starting to be built by tech companies: Facebook, Google, Snapchat and other platforms. This is being accelerated by consumers who are glued to phones and by publishers that are rising up to slowly embrace the new ways of reaching them.

Had the ANA presented a more balanced view, the jury of industry peers in the room would have come away more optimistic that the platforms are already solving many of these issues and in being inspired to forgo banner ads in favor of entirely new mobile paradigms.

Unfortunately, the defense rested before the trial even began.