Digital giants are 'weaponising' attribution and it's driving short-termism

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 27 February 2018
Digital tech giants are winning the attribution arms race.

If traditional media owners do not sort out attribution, there is a real risk that large tech giants like Google and Facebook could 'weaponise' attribution to a market that embraces short-termism.

That's the verdict of a panel discussing whether TV measurement and valuation, particularly around ROI studies, are fit for purpose.

There is an attribution arms race in the media and marketing industry that is so far being won by a handful of technology giants who operate platforms that bias last-click attribution methods.

Traditional media owners, such as TV networks, have long produced their own attribution and ROI studies at great expense to clients and media buyers, but often with little effect.

GroupM chief investment officer Sebastian Rennie, who is set to exit the media group shortly, led a Future of TV conference debate to work out whether the TV industry could do more to get cut through, and stressed its urgency before throwing to the panel.

“The people that are really weaponising attribution seem to be the big tech players, such as Google, AOL, Facebook,” Rennie said. “They're the people that are sitting in the right part of the quadrant leading the charge.”

When Rennie asked panellists if there was a risk the major tech firms would take full control of marketing attribution and measuring cross-platform success, the response was a unanimous 'yes'.

'It's driving short-termism'

Although the TV representatives have an obvious vested interest, IAB Australia director of research Gai Le Roy offered a different reason.

“There's easy, quick, default metrics on platforms. I don't think that is the intent, but it's easy to collect that stuff and it's driving short-termism,” Le Roy said.

“All the big platforms realise they want to build brand and there are those things, but it's all of our fault – the media owners, agencies, and everyone, because it's easy and it's quick and you can show numbers immediately. In this market that is what people like to do.”

WPP's Kantar Millward Brown looks at long-term measurements of impact, such as the attitudinal shifts in brand metrics and calculating the return on investment over time.

Executive director of media and digital Mark Henning said there has been a tendency to “get that fast metric that is easily available and will fit in this box, even if it doesn't really work”.

He noted that clients are now realising this short-sighted approach doesn't actually work and attitudes are starting to shift back to long-term metrics.

MCN chief data officer Mark Brandon believes that a small independent attribution start-up firm could come along that everybody will “just jump on board with”.

“These companies are starting to appear. They're an amalgamation of smart analytics and data capabilities and are going at it hard in a Google or Facebook kind of way”.

He added: “I guess ultimately they are the kind of businesses that will just get snapped up by Google or Facebook or Amazon.”

All panellists agreed that measurement and attribution should be independently audited at source, rather than the current method of verifying data supplied by certain digital media platforms. It's something that Facebook is often criticised for, but is unlikely to change.

mcn_event-gotliebvv8.jpgMCN's Mark Brandon says the industry needs to come together to sort out attribution.

TV's conundrum

Brandon points out that getting the ROI message about TV to marketers and media buyers is important to help them realise the greater value of long-form video impressions compared to short-form.

"It's very obvious to anybody in the game that not all impressions are the same but proving it, demonstrating it and getting money out of [media buyers] is a slightly different thing. We don't have a choice, we have to put an untold amout on effort into proving it," he says.

"People are voting with their chequebooks here and clearly believe in a premium advertising environment, but at the moment it's all about the negotiation [with media buyers on cost] rather than putting some value around that."

Econometric modelling is expensive, takes time and doesn't release data on a quick basis. On the other end there are direct response metrics that sharpens the focus on short-termism rather than long-termism.

Networks spend huge sums of money on a range of effectiveness studies around sponsorship deals each year.

“After every big franchise, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prove the effectiveness of TV sponsorship,” Network Ten head of research Gareth Tomlin said.

“It's presented to the agency of a client and then it's put away on a shared drive and never spoken about again. It's great that Think TV are publicising that a bit more but I think as networks we have to collaborate to spread that good word and showing the best practice of TV sponsorship.”

mcn_event-gotliebv5.jpgThe Future of TV conference was held in Sydney last Thursday.

Do media agencies care?

MCN chief data officer Mark Brandon explains that MCN has carried out “dipstick attribution studies” for some time that show TV “knocks the ball out of the park” in terms of return on investment.

MCN has plans to “industrialise” these studies to provide greater scale, but Brandon is dubious about whether it will make any difference to media plans.

“I'm not entirely clear to be honest what the agency perspective on ROI actually is,” Brandon says.

“When we've done surveys we've done them at our own cost for our very good friends on the agency side and I couldn't say they are generating real world income for us.”

Brandon questioned whether media buyers are more interested in attribution studies that prove short-term returns on investment, which doesn't play to the brand building strength of TV.

“If we look at the US, one of the big use cases supporting addressability in the US is that it is being used to calibrate some kind of ROI result,” he said,adding that although MCN will continue to upscale its attribution work, it begs the question:

“What is it that buyers actually want, I don't think that question has been properly resolved.”

The challenge with ROI studies, as Le Roy puts it, is that ROI for brand marketing is “too expensive, too slow and often not actionable and that's an industry problem."

It's a problem that television and other traditional media channels can no longer afford to drag their feet over. 

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