There's a growing acceptance that the digital advertising industry needs to change, but how? Damon Reeve looks to the Fair Trade movement as an example of how things could develop.  

The concept of fairness in advertising is not one that makes the headlines often, particularly when it comes to media buying and marketing investment. But while there are many different factors influencing purchase decisions within our industry – some legacy, some fairly new –we’re starting to witness a major shift in the principal buyer, the marketer, taking more responsibility for shaping the online advertising ecosystem.

Will the creation of a fair and balanced, equitable trading system top the marketer agenda? Well, it definitely appears to be a growing consideration. A recent LiveRamp whitepaper highlights 35% of marketers seeing a way to a fairer internet through greater transparency from major online companies.

I believe the need for a shift towards a more balanced system becomes crystal clear if we look at the practice of Fair Trade and identify the parallels with our sector.

The building blocks for balance

Let’s talk bananas ... At some point, somewhere along the line, someone must have identified some unfair dynamics at play within the banana market. While I’m no expert, presumably this meant banana growers were not being fairly paid and the value exchange between buyers, sellers and middlemen was out of balance; the principles of Fair Trade became the alternative.

Getting to the point where fairer trading is established requires a number of steps to be satisfied. These building blocks include:

1. A motivation for change, driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo

2. A different, well considered and compelling alternative way of doing things

3. Information transparency and a clear understanding of where value is captured

4. Ensuring buyers are informed and educated about the choice they are making

Using our banana example, steps to a resolution would have included the auditing of supply chains, the creation of acceptable standards and defining what is considered ‘good’. Each step would create more confidence in the concept of Fair Trade until we get to the point where the banana consumer is sufficiently educated about the options when making their purchase choice. Now let’s apply these same principles to digital advertising.

Fairness in programmatic advertising

Step one: there is both motivation and momentum for change on all sides of the digital trading equation. Data is disappearing as a result of the changes to third-party cookies and tracking, and when combined with data regulation, brand safety concerns and measurability and transparency issues, the marketer has clear reasons to demand change.

Similarly, for premium publishers the current digital set-up creates a poor-value exchange. For example, while news brands often have greater audience reach than the major digital platforms, collectively they only receive one-fortieth of the marketer’s investment.

Secondly, we have emerging alternatives. Frameworks like ISBA’s 5 Point Plan, The Attention Council and The Disinformation Index are growing in popularity. We also have the opportunity to remove digital from its silo as actions like Chrome’s discontinuation of support for the third-party cookie force advertisers to look at alternatives beyond ad tech metrics. The growing demand for digital ad effectiveness measures to align with those of other media shows the appetite is there.

Thirdly, greater transparency is essential for our industry’s future health. PwC ranked data maturity in advertising at somewhere between weak and average, and for an industry dominated by three of the five most valuable companies in the world that is unacceptable. In particular, if transparency in programmatic supply chains is not addressed, then distrust will continue and advertisers will work even more closely with the larger publishers and aggregators such as Ozone, at the expense of the broader market.

Finally, buyers of digital advertising are more equipped than ever to make informed choices. Previously, most advertisers didn’t engage enough or care about where their digital ads appeared. Now, marketers are acknowledging their role in maintaining a high-quality advertising ecosystem – they are showing great proactivity in addressing many of the past issues while becoming more aligned with content publishers to create the new digital future.

The right time for a reset

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind us that when we have to change, we can. Many of the digital discussions that had been bubbling away pre-COVID – such as brand safety, the importance of trusted environments, the need for greater transparency – have seen accelerated action through the pandemic. Change can literally come overnight.

I believe this renewed sense of action can fuel the drive to a fairer online future. As the principals in the advertising relationship, both brands and publishers must push for a system that drives equitable, mutual benefit, and just as importantly one that creates a positive impact for both the consumer and society at large. To miss this opportunity would simply be bananas – and certainly not the Fair Trade type.