Do Big Advertisers Even Matter to the Platforms?


P&G, Unilever and others are throwing their weight around with Google and Facebook. The platforms can afford to ignore them.


The IAB annual meeting — an industry event featuring all manner of digital media and marketing folk — is in full swing right about now, and it’s managed to capture a news cycle by releasing an early draft of a speech from Keith Weed, CMO of consumer packaged goods giant Unilever. The Journal covers the story here, and here’s the (literal) money quote: “‘We will prioritize investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact in society,’ [Weed] will say, according to prepared remarks.”

Put another way: Clean up the fake news, the addictive manipulation, and the AI-driven kid bait, or we’ll pull hundreds of millions of dollars from YouTube, Facebook, and Google. The result could be a major bonanza for huge publishers like Oath and Amazon, and perhaps for media outlets with less scale such as Vox, Axios, and Buzzfeed. Sounds like a big loss for the platforms, no?

Well, maybe. I was on the board of the IAB for many years, I helped lead its fraud efforts, and I’ve worked closely with huge advertisers like Unilever. And upon seeing this news, my only question is this: Will it even matter?

Weed isn’t the first major CMO to target Google and Facebook, in fact, his colleague Marc Pritchard, head of brand at P&G, did exactly the same thing, at exactly the same conference one year ago, calling on the duopoly to “clean up the digital supply chain.” Pritchard was focused mainly on fraud, bad actors and advertising ‘viewability’ (it’s astounding how many ads are paid for, but still not seen by anyone), but his threat was very real: After reports of his ads being placed alongside unsavory content on YouTube, Pritchard pulled all his spend. Nearly one year later, it has yet to be reinstated.

During that time, Google’s revenues have increased by more than 20 percent, on a base of more than $27 billion per quarter. That’s more than $100 billion a year. P&G’s protest vote of an estimated $140 million represents roughly .0014 percent of that revenue base. Sure, Google prefers to not lose a marquee client like P&G. But one has to ask — why has the company failed to woo the world’s largest advertiser back to the fold?

Might it be the math?

For every $100 million a major advertiser like Unilever or P&G is willing to move off the platforms, there are another million advertisers eager to replace them with much smaller buys. This is the power of self service platforms. In March of 2016, Facebook announced it had 3 million advertisers. One year later, that number was 5 million. The vast majority of those were individuals and small businesses spending $20 or $30 a pop promoting pages they created themselves (you know, kind of like the Russians did).

And as long as those small advertisers feel like they’re getting what they paid for, the platforms can afford to grin f*ck the hell out of their largest customers.

Major advertisers may not be able to throw their weight around like they used to, but they do have a shot at the moral high ground. The key to today’s story is the qualifier: Weed is threatening to cut off all marketing spend on platforms which fail to “create a positive impact in society.”

So who determines “positive impact”? If there’s one clear takeaway from the mess that the platforms have found themselves in since the election, it’s this: Google and Facebook are genetically incapable of taking responsibility for the content on their platforms. Doing so would quite literally destroy the core of their business model as “neutral tech platforms.” As Sheryl Sandberg puts it: “We are not a media company.” She may as well have added: “And we don’t intend to become one.”

This places the moral imperative of determining “positive impact” squarely on the shoulders of the advertising industry. During the television era, advertisers were entirely comfortable determining the moral quality of the content adjacent to their messaging. Will things change if they accept the responsibility again in today’s platform era?

I certainly hope *that’s* the focus of the IAB’s work going forward. The world’s largest advertisers are now willing to lead. Our industry should be helping them in every way possible.

A few related stories broke over the weekend that are well worth your time.

I’m only a third of the way through this piece, which came out late last night, but it’s excellent so far. A much needed history of how we got to where we are today.

This guy isn’t the hero this story makes him out to be (there were many, many others, far more studied, who have been saying the same thing for years, like Renee DiResta and Zeynep Tufecki), but the point is worth making in any case. The story needs an exploration of solutions, because no matter what, we have to come up with them. I can imagine some — blue check marks for all real people, for example — but society won’t like them, at first. Then again, most of us thought sharing the details of our daily life online was insane back in 2007.