Dear Advertising Industry: Please Do Better. You’re Killing the Open Web.

IBoughtTheRobeLeaveMeAlone
Um…I already bought a robe, Amazon.

If you’re read my rants for long enough, you know I’m fond of programmatic advertising. I’ve called it the most important artifact in human history, replacing  the Macintosh as the most significant tool ever created.

So yes, I think programmatic advertising is a big deal. As I wrote in the aforementioned post:

“I believe the very same technologies we’ve built to serve real time, data-driven advertising will soon be re-purposed across nearly every segment of our society. Programmatic adtech is the heir to the database of intentions – it’s that database turned real time and distributed far outside of search. And that’s a very, very big deal. (I just wish I had a cooler name for it than “adtech.”)” 

But lately, I’m starting to wonder if perhaps adtech is failing, not for any technical reason, but because the people leveraging are complicit in what might best be called a massive failure of imagination.

I’m about to go on a rant here, so please forgive me in advance.

But honestly, who else out there is sick of being followed by ads so stupid a fourth grader could do a better job of targeting them?

Case in point is the ad above. I took this screen shot from my phone this past weekend while I was reading a New York Times article. The image – of a robe Amazon wanted me to buy – was instantly annoying, because I had in fact purchased a robe on Amazon several days before. Why on earth was Amazon retargeting me for a product I just bought?!

But wait, it gets worse! As I perused the next Times article, this ad shows up:

AndIBoughtTheSlippersTooAhole
And I already bought slippers too!

You might think this ad makes more sense. If the dude buys a robe, makes sense to try to sell him a new pair of slippers, no? Well, sure, but only if that same dude didn’t buy a new pair of slippers two weeks ago. Which, in fact, I did just do.

So, yeah, this ad sucks as well. Not only is it not useful or relevant, it’s downright annoying. The vast machinery of adtech has correctly identified me as a robe-and-slippers-buying customer. But it’s failed to realize *I’ve already bought the damn things.*

Is it possible that adtech is this stupid? This poorly instrumented? I mean, are programmatic buyers simply tagging visitors who land on ecommerce pages (male robe intender?) without caring about whether those visitors actually bought anything?

Are the human beings responsible for setting the dials of programmatic just this lazy?

Yes.

I’ve been a critical observer of adtech over the past ten or so years, and one consistent takeaway is this: If there’s a way for a buyer to cut corners, declare an easy win, and keep doing things they way the’ve always been done, well, they most certainly will.

But why does it have to be this way? Digging into the examples above yields an extremely frustrating set of facts. Consider the data the adtech infrastructure either got *right* about me as a customer, or could have gotten right:

  • I am a frequent ecommerce customer, usually buying on Amazon
  • I recently purchased both a robe and some slippers
  • I am reading on the New York Times site as a logged on (IE data rich) customer of the Times‘ offerings

These are just the obvious data points. My mobile ID and cookies, all of which are available to programmatic buyers, certainly indicate a high household income, a propensity to click on certain kinds of ads, a rich web browsing history reflecting a thickly veined lodestar of interest data, among countless other possible inputs.

Imagine if a programmatic campaign actually paid attention to all this rich data? Start with the fact I just purchased a robe and slippers. What are products related to those two that Amazon might show me? Well, according to its own “people who bought this item also bought” algorithms, folks who bought men’s robes also bought robes for the women in their life. Now there’s a cool recommendation! I might have clicked on an ad that showed a cool robe for my wife. But no, I’m shown an ad for a product I already have.

Why?

I’ve got a few calls in to verify my hunch, but I suspect the ugly truth is pure laziness on the part of the folks responsible for buying ads. Consider: The average cost for a thousand views (CPM) of a targeted programmatic advertisement hovers between ten cents (yes, ten pennies) to $2.  With costs that low, the advertising community can afford to waste ad inventory.

Let’s apply that reality to our robe example. Let’s say the robe costs $60, and yields a $20 profit for our e-commerce advertiser, not including marketing costs. That means that same advertiser is can spend upwards of $19.99 per unit on advertising (more, if a robe purchaser turns out to be a “big basket” e-commerce spender).  So what does our advertiser do? Well, they set a retargeting campaign aimed anyone who ever visited our erstwhile robe’s page.  With CPMs averaging around a buck, that robe’s going to follow nearly 20,000 folks around the internet, hoping that just one  of them converts.

Put another way, programmatic advertising is a pure numbers game, and as long as the numbers show one penny of profit, no one is motivated to make the system any better. I’ve encountered many similar examples of ad buyers ignoring high-quality data signals, preferring instead to “waste reach” because, well, it’s just easier to set up campaigns on one or two factors. Inventory is cheap. Why not?

This is problematic. What’s the point of having all that rich (and hard won) targeting data if buyers won’t use it, and consumers don’t benefit from it? An ecosystem that fails to encourage innovation will stagnate and lose share to walled gardens like Facebook, Google, and others. If the ads suck on the open web (and they do), then consumers will either install ad blockers (and they are), or abandon the open web altogether (and they are).

We can do so much better. Shouldn’t we try?

Cross posted from Searchblog