“Can you imagine the outcry if it was found that gas pumps were showing 20 gallons pumped when they were only pumping 10 gallons?”
This what Bob Hoffman ponders after a recent comScore study found that 54% of display ads paid for by advertisers the past year were seen by absolutely no one. Sure, they may have technically appeared on a page, but were never actually visible to a human eye. Yet by all means of measurement, these are counted impressions as shown in thousands of CPM display analytic reports on the desks of chief marketing officers everywhere.
Penning it the ‘$7.5 Billion Ad Swindle‘, Hoffman isn’t shocked by any means (he’s a staunch advocate against the effectiveness of display advertising on the web altogether) but finds the silence in the industry to these facts as the most disturbing part. Essentially, half of client’s ad budgets are being stolen out from under them, either through fraud or incompetence, yet no one even wants to acknowledge it. It’s the steroids in baseball dilemma of 1998. In a time when digital ad budgets are increasing in all verticals, it would be in no one’s best interest (at least for agencies and exchanges) to kill the golden goose.
While the ‘Ad Contrarian’ has a penchant to conjure up default blame in nefarious, shyster activity by unscrupulous marketing firms, I tend to veer in the other direction – that most of these people just don’t have a fucking clue. To compound the issue, the clients of these hapless folks have even less of a clue. Even worse, the client doesn’t actually give a damn and holds no one to any sense of accountability at all. And you wonder how half these ad budgets disappear into the ether?
I may just be a small player dealing with small ‘mom & pop’ businesses with small budgets on a small scale, but I’m constantly amazed at the shenanigans, intentional or not, that are perpetrated on unsuspecting clients who place a ton of trust in agencies with little care in conducting any due diligence. In no way am I even talking about advanced-level work with multi-faceted strategies and many moving tactical parts. It’s the basic, fundamental shit that’s being botched.
I’ve seen phantom SEO work with doctored monthly reports. I’ve seen free WordPress themes as-is peddled as two-thousand dollar products. I’ve seen PPC accounts set up so poorly and mismanaged (if managed at all) that thousands of dollars of a client’s money is practically flushed down the toilet.
I’ve seen web development companies charge co-location prices for “hosting and maintenance” for what turns out to be shared hosting reseller accounts. I’ve seen expensive industry-specific web platforms with e-mail marketing funnels that have a deliverability rate under 20%. I’ve seen a marketing agency downright steal a fucking domain name from a client and charge them over a thousand bucks a year to simply keep their website from disappearing.
Sure, some of these instances were knowingly pure scams, no doubt about it. Some, however, are just a case of total ineptitude or poor sub-contractor accountability (which is a whole ‘nother story – as clients rarely know behind the scenes how much work is being arbitraged to third-world countries). But in all cases, the business being served wasn’t even aware that anything was out of the ordinary. They’re not experts in the technical sense by any means and just assume it’s the normal ‘cost of doing business’ and the way things are done. Until someone with a speck of domain experience actually takes more than a passing glance at what’s happening under the hood, the charade will continue with them being none the wiser.
Although I’m typically not involved with display media buying (yes, I am very much aligned with Bob Hoffman in its ineffectiveness), it’s not a surprise at all that so many counted ad impressions are going unverified with both the agency and client in the dark. Yet it’s too easy to blame just the marketers for this. At some point, clients must hold their agencies, vendors, partners, consultants and any other party in the process accountable – both in the proposal stage and initial sign-on as well as on a regular basis throughout the course of the relationship. 
Trust me, I’m not trying to make excuses for shitty third-party work and scapegoat the client to blame fully. But really, do you think such shenanigans – like a few billion dollars of display ad budgets being ‘scammed’ away – would be able to continue if businesses kept up more closely in what was being executed on their behalf?
I highly doubt it. That is how the problem gets solved. Survival of the fittest ensues. The industry regulating itself? That’s a lost fucking cause.
1. This is why my agency’s marketing services are always on a month-to-month basis, no yearly contracts. We have to sell ourselves and show our value every single month when meeting with our clients.