Confessions of a publisher sales exec: ‘It’s all smoke and mirrors’

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Ad blocking, fraud and viewability are all hot topics in media today, but they may be masking bigger underlying threats. For the latest installment of Digiday’s Confessions series, in which we trade honesty for anonymity, we spoke to a digital director with 15 years experience in media and ad tech sales about what the real problems are.

Excerpts lightly edited.

What’s your biggest frustration?
The insularity of the industry. There’s a fundamental lack of self-awareness. It’s the worst form of masturbation. It’s not even for self-satisfaction; it’s for self-fulfillment, which is wrong.

In which part of the industry?
Every part. It’s not like medicine or law, where you spend years gaining qualifications. When it comes to flogging media, the intellectual barrier to entry has been low. That’s now created an intellectual vacuum higher up.

You think the intellectual level is low?
Ad tech has raised it. But you don’t see many engineers, developers, chief product officers holding court or framing conversations. The guys that are now commercial directors or MDs of ad tech companies aren’t intrinsically brilliant; they’re lucky. We’re all lucky. When the economic depression hit in 2008, no one in this industry panicked. We were still walking down Charlotte Street thinking we owned the world. But we’re not brilliant; we’re just riding a wave. The thing that propels our industry — advertising — has never faced more threats.

Like ad blocking?
That’s just a manifestation of it. Everyone gets worried about ad blocking, and mobile monetization, but the insularity in our industry is breeding an unfair representation of what’s most important.

So what is important?
What everyone should be concerned about is that no one over the last 15 years has asked: What’s the value of my digital media? No CMO has ever said: I know we have these lovely CPAs, but if I stop advertising on digital media right now, what would happen?

So what would happen?
When was the last time you clicked on an ad?

When is the last time you saw a piece of creative that re-established, promoted or recalibrated your thought process about a brand online? If you ask the majority of people when they last clicked on an ad, most of them haven’t.

But the performance looks good?
It’s all smoke and mirrors. For a medium that was sold as the greatest accountable, tangible medium, we’re indulging the biggest masquerade since Blair and Bush said there were WMDs in Iraq.

There are no positives?
Ad tech companies don’t need to engage with agencies but can go direct to clients and show where they can cut out middle men and so they can have better value for media. That’s made the people who sign the checks more aware of what’s happening, so procurement people started asking questions. That’s positive, but everyone in the stakeholder chain needs to up their game. I met with 21 tech companies within six hours at Dmexco. It got to the stage where my opening sentence was: Can you in 20 seconds demonstrate the clear water that you have between yourself and anyone else?

And could they?
Of course not. They’re too similar. Most of them are just waiting and praying they get bought by some consultancy.

So where do management consultancies fit in?
They’re filling that intellectual vacuum. They’re acutely good at creating a level of bullshit masked in an MBA, surrounded by a Ph.D. from Stanford, that people buy into. How many Ph.D.s or MBAs are floating around in digital media in London? Not a lot. How many floating round consultancies: A lot. They’ve done a great job at commercializing their intellect.

And they’re trying to eat everyone’s cake. They have an agenda, which is for the first time ad tech has enabled them to not only have the intellectual conversation about strategy but actually implement it. They can buy the ad tech themselves.

Are media owners affected by that?
Their negotiation power will reduce. If the Boston Consulting Group came to me and said we’ve just signed a five-year deal with Pepsi, we’ll consult with them on everything, including the marketing, but we’ve bought X ad tech company, and we’d like to plug you into our DSP, but just to let you know, all Pepsi activity is to be bought at 60p. I either say no to working with Pepsi or have to accept the 60p. Substitute Pepsi for O2, BT or Sky — that’s the issue. Sky is the biggest digital media advertiser and are step by step taking every single thing they do in-house. O2 is already on that journey. And by in-house, I’m not talking about using their own DSP but partnering with a consultancy you implicitly trust who does the buying for you.

They’re systematically directing what the clients are thinking — you want to be the ones whispering in the ear, not necessarily the ones being whispered to. You want to be Iago, not Othello. And the management consultancies are the Iagos.

That sounds ominous.
It’s ominous if we continue to speak about crap. If you continue to say the wrong things are important, we’ll be in trouble.

Is it fixable?
Of course, we’re only 15 years in; everyone is still learning. It will sift out at some stage, there will be mergers, winners and losers, and then we’ll become a more grown-up industry.

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