In digital advertising, as in life, there’s no such thing as laissez-faire responsibility. You can’t just start something and walk away from it. If you do, then don’t be surprised when things don’t go your way.
This is something that American Action Network learned the hard way on Friday night. The PAC aired ads in several Republican districts, congratulating legislators for “replacing the Affordable Care Act with better healthcare," despite the GOP's bill never making it to the House floor.
So how does something like this happen? Presumably, AAN paid a digital consultant to handle these ad placements and assumed that the ads were in good hands. Surely these professionals were paying attention to the events of the day and were ready to stop the ads if needed? Obviously not.
This happens all too often. Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign continued running ads for days after the election. Donald Trump’s campaign ads ran alongside pro-ISIS propaganda videos. It’s much easier and cheaper for an advertising agency to launch an ad campaign and move on rather than to pay someone to monitor the ads or news events that could be relevant to how the ads are received.
That’s why ad agencies were so quick to point fingers after news broke that some of Google’s digital advertising inventory was appearing on websites and YouTube videos associated with terrorist groups. Advertisers are pulling their spots from YouTube in a bid to hold Google accountable. Here’s the thing, though, agencies need to be held accountable too.
While companies like Google need to do more to eliminate bad inventory, agencies need to do more to protect their clients. Many agencies have become lax in their campaign monitoring –either because it isn’t a priority or because they’re only pretending to know how. Worse, some knowingly run on bad sites in order to get more impressions at a lower cost and increase their margins.
Great campaigns require expert strategy and detailed creation at launch, but they can only become some of the best campaigns if those experts continue applying their knowledge and skills until the last day.
Consultants who don’t monitor campaigns risk throwing money at the wrong targets, optimizing to the wrong metrics and even running on bad inventory. In short, they run a very high risk of throwing money away.
Paying an agency to run your ads the right way should actually save you from wasting money on bad placements and mediocre results. If an agency is complaining about the fact that a platform allowed ads to run on bad sites then they should also explain why they weren’t monitoring the sites that ads were running on.
So let’s go back to the Google issue.
This incident has made it pretty clear to anyone who didn’t already know (or maybe just didn’t care) that algorithms and automation are never going to be perfect. That’s why an agency’s job isn’t supposed to end after campaigns have been created and launched.
It’s tempting to think that platforms like Google and Facebook will do a great job of running your ads if you just leave them alone and let them work. Unfortunately, that isn’t the truth. It’s very common for people who are inexperienced or don’t have comprehensive and current training to make devastating mistakes, some of which are more politically damaging than others. Even if everything is launched correctly, a lot of things can go wrong: What if the building you were targeting uses masked IP addresses? What if there’s an increase in competition? What if people respond poorly to your messaging? What if your ads start running on a website or next to content that is bad for your brand?
Campaigns need constant monitoring that looks at more than just impressions and clicks. Good agencies look for strange trends and results that are outside average or acceptable parameters. If more agencies did that, instead of expecting Google to do it for them, then it wouldn’t matter that Google’s content algorithm isn’t perfect.
The end result of all of this should be a much better product than you could get on your own. Digital agencies that have experienced staff and who constantly keep up with changes to platforms and updates in the digital world as a whole should not only provide great strategy before a campaign launches, but constant monitoring and smart optimizations after launch. If they’re not then they aren’t doing their job.
Anyone who says that Google is entirely to blame for this incident is wrong. There are dozens of ways for experienced advertisers to keep client ads from serving on bad inventory. If there are agencies that aren’t doing them, then we need to start holding them accountable in the same way they are with Google.
Really good digital advertising can and should take a lot of time and work. Everyone, clients and agencies alike, want fast, good and cheap. Preventing brand safety incidents, though, requires human resources and quality inventory. Explaining that to clients is also part of an agency’s job. It’s irresponsible to promise hundreds of thousands of impressions at a low cost without being transparent about why it’s so cheap and where those ads will be running. Our profession, and our clients, deserve better.
Loren Merchan serves as vice president, advertising at Revolution Messaging.