Brian Stoller, Chief Marketing Officer, Foundry an IDG Inc. Company 

At a recent dinner I attended, Universal McCann’s Chief Media Officer Joshua Lowcook made an argument that the internet was broken. Once heralded as the ultimate transfer of knowledge, and the biggest ‘marketplace of ideas,’ the internet promised to build brands and expand democracies.  

But today it is fundamentally broken. Algorithms that reward misinformation, spam, phishing, fake product reviews, click bait, privacy concerns and not to mention those “creepy ads that follow you everywhere” (his words) have made the internet just as much a fertile ground for the ethically corrupt as it is a platform for positive impact and growth. 

How did we get here?  

I broke the internet. (Well… not just me. My advertising industry colleagues were co-conspirators in this plot.) That was the conclusion I came to after thinking through what my dinner companion had to say. Was it our intention? No. But did we learn to play certain models to our advantage, which, in retrospect, established a standard operating procedure for today’s smarmy actors? It seems so, yes. 

Back in the early-aughts, we became focused on low-cost reach and frequency. We grew obsessed with arbitrage models, and programmatic technologies that allowed us to buy cheap ads, reselling at a higher cost.  All while simultaneously proclaiming we were “stewards of our client’s brands,” using still more intermediary (taxing) technologies to monitor for viewability and ad fraud. 

It was the ad industry that created the current environment of click-bait publishers and ad fraud while simultaneously enabling networks of middlemen to profit on often poor content created in environments we don’t control. Environments and platforms that are increasingly constructed by AI and rewarded for eyeballs and clicks. We not only enabled the monetization of misinformation—we rewarded it.  

You break it you buy it! 

Unfortunately, these early models have evolved to create the crooked online experience that we know today. We, the ad industry, need to recognize that it is our behavior that has largely enabled the broken internet environment. But we can also assume responsibility for fixing it. In fact, we’d be better off for doing so. 

At the same dinner, we discussed the challenges trusted publishers have capturing ad dollars amid the broken misinformation economy. One of my former ad agency colleagues laughed it off, dismissing the conversation: “That’s a buy-side problem.” The same agency exec then went on to discuss how they are concerned about their clients’ brands and how they need more ad tech to safeguard their media buys. 

Here’s a thought… Let us as an industry go back to the only true way of protecting a brand.  Let’s be true brand stewards and once again cultivate media partnerships between brands and credible publishers.  Ad buyers should seek out award winning journalism and interesting articles that are contextually relevant to their brands. Media buyers should recognize trusted relationships between readers and publishers and reward editorial integrity over SEO-powered clickbait. 

The new good ol’ days. 

Am I being nostalgic? Are you reading this and rolling your eyes the same way my daughter does when we talk about screen time and human interaction? 

Fixing the internet doesn’t mean going back to the days of manual insertion orders and three martini lunches. (For the record I only did that once, though I do remember faxing countless IO’s to once-large media companies I admired.) Nor am I suggesting we shun programmatic marketing technologies or declare social media a blight on society. There are many ways modern media technologies can continue to make our industry more efficient and improve performance.  Programmatic private marketplace deals negotiated with trusted publishers can improve audience targeting. Blockchain-enabled ad servers can confirm contractual obligations and eliminate ad fraud.  Even ChatGPT can help improve a poorly written blog post. Tech can be a source of good. 

Placement, not platform. 

There is more than one industry organization whose charter is designed to promote “more good” from the advertising industry.  The Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) and Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) are two such entities.  But given their members are comprised predominantly of agencies and large advertisers, and their focus is mostly on social media platforms and brand safety, they’ve been criticized as self-serving. The fix is not an industry watch dog model but needs to be a practice of legitimate concern that is inherent in the media planning process. 

The next generation of media planners needs to be strategic thinkers, not computer programmers. Consideration needs to be repositioned to the placement rather than the platform.  To fix the misinformation economy, we (marketers) need to be responsible for our ad dollars. As an industry we must consider the long-term effect of allowing self-driving computers to determine our advertisement destinations over rewarding premium, trusted editorial environments. 

Stay tuned for my next blog where I blame my advertising colleagues for global warming. (No, really… the industry strongly needs to consider our carbon footprint.) 


About the Author: 

Brian Stoller is an ad industry veteran and marketing technology enthusiast.  He spent over two decades at WPP, GroupM, and Mindshare before building a media team at IBM and launching several Ad Tech start-ups.  Today, Brian is the Chief Marketing Officer of Foundry, an IDG Inc. media and martech company.