Artist Sells Invisible Sculpture. Adtech Sells The Same Thing
This week comes the headline “Artist sells an invisible sculpture for £13,000.” Do you think the buyer wasted his money? He got the “certificate of authenticity” though, so it must be real, right? Maybe he has so much money that wasting £13,000 doesn’t dent his fortune even slightly. Ridicule the silly buyer all you want, but this is exactly what had been happening for the last ten years in digital advertising, when programmatic ad buying got a foothold and took off. (And this was not the first time this artist sold “thin air” — it was previously called ‘Buddha in Contemplation’).
Instead of buying ads from a finite number of real publishers that had real human audiences, marketers were convinced to buy ads through programmatic channels, by ad tech vendors that created those channels to make money for themselves. The theory was that some humans go to “long tail,” niche sites some of the time; when you put enough of these sites together, you get “at-scale” media buys. However, no one said those visitors were human, and no one said those pageviews were not automatically loaded by software — i.e. bots. Marketers happily assumed they were buying the same thing as if they bought ads from legitimate, mainstream publishers — ads loaded on webpages when a human visitor looked at the page in a browser. Sadly, they were not (buying ads shown to humans).
Programmatic exchanges magically had far more scale (quantity of ad impressions to buy), far lower prices (lower CPMs), and far better performance (much higher click through rates). Right off the bat, your common sense and a saying from childhood “if it’s too good to be true, it is too good to be true” should have kicked in and slapped you across the face so you’d stop buying the invisible sculpture. But alas, marketers were caught up by the lure of fool’s gold. It was too tempting to buy larger quantities of ads, at lower average CPM prices. Marketers thought to themselves they saved money. But they didn’t save money because they bought far larger quantities, despite the lower unit prices.
When some marketers started to get wise to the fact that their ads were not shown to humans but to bots, along came a crop of fraud detection companies that purported to help them detect the fraud so they could avoid it. However, these companies kept reporting 1% IVT year after year. Common sense should make you wonder whether the fraud was actually that low, or whether it was because of the inability of those technologies to detect it. But the low fraud reports gave advertisers tacit “permission” to keep buying. After all, someone else said there was low fraud and bots — they provided the “certificate of authenticity” — so it must be OK to keep buying, right?
Right, and the statue is still invisible. Advertisers were buying fraud detection services for CTB (“check the box”) or CYA (“cover your a**”) purposes, not for real fraud detection. How do I know? The fraud detection reports just say X percent IVT with no detailed explanations of what was measured and how it was measured; and buyers of those reports seldom look and probe deeper anyway. So fraud detection provided a way for buyers to pass the buck when their bosses asked about the fraud — “they said it was fine, so we kept buying it.”
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I fully realize that despite history — remember “pet rock”? — snake oil salesmen will continue to successfully sell snake oil. And gullible buyers will continue to think themselves smart for buying the snake oil. They are thoroughly convinced it works. In digital advertising, there’s even reams of data showing vanity metrics like clicks, traffic, installs, etc. that make it appear to be working too. So it’s understandable that buyers of these ads truly think there is a statue there, even though their own eyes tell them there’s nothing there.
Perhaps another childhood story is appropriate here — the one about the emperor without clothes. Every commoner (ones with common sense) could plainly see the emperor prancing around without clothes. But everyone in the emperor’s inner circle continued to praise the beautiful, invisible clothes, despite the fact that some of them could also see there was nothing there. They were afraid to speak up about it; perhaps they were even the ones that convinced him to buy the invisible garments in the first place.
In the years since 2012-13, when programmatic seriously took off, the red bars in the chart above show the growing disparity between reality (humans consuming media) and the invisible statue (invisible ads sold by the trillions through programmatic exchanges). When will you stop convincing yourself that you paid for digital ads, when all the evidence and your own common sense tells you they were invisible statues sold by (con) artists. You paid millions of dollars for it. Perhaps you won’t ever get that money back; but you should certainly try to avoid wasting even more money on it going forward.