Confessions of a publishing sales executive: ‘It’s transparency overkill’

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 →

The rallying cry for more transparency in the digital ad supply chain from brand marketers and publishers has been a big and important theme of 2018. Seeking more transparency, particularly when it comes to hidden fees, has been prioritized by the buy and the sell side, but the term is dangerously teetering on the edge of becoming an overused buzzword, according to one frustrated sales executive at a digital media publisher.

For the latest installment of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, we spoke to this executive about their concerns that the term “transparency” is now used as PR packaging when true transparency is likely unsustainable, sucking up precious resources and distracting publishers from hitting wider business goals.

Excerpts lightly edited for clarity and flow.

You and your company have taken the need for more transparency in digital ad supply chains seriously. why are you now so frustrated with the term “transparency”?
Without a shadow of a doubt, “transparency” has become the most overused word in our industry. The word is bandied around at every panel, every event, every PR communication and increasingly every pitch. The PR buzz is ridiculous.

You mean it’s now being used as PR opportunism?
Yes, it’s nuts. Every tech vendor is talking about it, every agency is talking about it despite the fact the biggest ones continue to squeeze publishers for all their worth. Now when vendors come and see us to pitch for business, that’s the first thing they talk about — that they’re transparent with their fees. That makes me think that they have been ripping me off — so why would I trust them now?

So vendors being open on that isn’t improving your trust?

Not when people use it in sales pitches. It is thrust down our throats in every pitch from vendors — how they have made mistakes in the past, they used to charge this, now they charge this. A few months ago a company came to me, and their opening slide was about the reduction in their take rates [margins]. Should that really be your opening gambit? Since then, other vendors have come in with similar tactics. They need to think about the execution of it and the way it’s being used for reputation marketing. Transparency shouldn’t be their entire business strategy.

What approach would you prefer?
We just want a candid conversation and to understand how the technology works. It’s not a matter of us not trusting people; we’d just rather do our own homework. But when businesses keep telling us how transparent they are, it feels like they’re doing it to put us off checking things for ourselves. Publishers should remain skeptical of it. It’s still remarkably hard to get log-file data from vendors.

Have you done any exchange audits?
We have done exchange audits, like many publishers have, and we’re still running some. From an operational point of view, I still have people working on it and that costs us money, and it costs agencies money operationally to do it. I would rather be focusing my team’s attention on other things that are going to help grow our revenue, other strategies we have in place. It can make you lose your focus on your wider business strategy and objectives that you’re trying to achieve, that could make you a lot more money than the smaller amount you may save from rooting out anomalies in the exchanges. Everyone has to make money, including us.

Does the return on investment from regular exchange auditing offset the resource you put in?
It probably does, but I didn’t hire my analysts to audit exchanges, but to look at wider things like why we’re not winning certain pitches and understanding more about ways to make revenue for the wider business. We’re already spread thin. All of a sudden you feel like you’ve dropped the ball somewhere else as so much of your focus has gone on it. We just need to be careful about that. We have had to push back product launch dates because we’ve been putting so much toward auditing.

Marketers and publishers have driven this need for transparency, for good reason.
Yes, I get that the intent is right, and moving in the right direction. But it’s gone too far the other way. Things like vendor open letters and such — it sounds fantastic on paper, but publishers are skeptical because it feels like a PR stunt. People can go on about cleaning up the industry, and that’s fine, but it’s impossible to do it completely because every business needs to make money. I can’t be fully transparent about our rate cards with agencies, and they can’t be fully transparent about why they want the same or more inventory for 25 percent less than last year — likely because there being squeezed by clients. The whole push for transparency has a knock-on effect through the supply chain. It’s transparency overkill.

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