In recent email rant, and as a build-up on the recently disclosed “Facebook files”, NYU Prof. and Brand strategist Scott Galloway looked at programmatic media buying and made a point about how algorithmic digital media buying although sexy on paper, often turns out to be inefficient in practice.  

I like Scott a lot, I follow some of his classes and find his newsletter insightful and refreshing. A few weeks ago, while he explained how algorithm-bought media models are skewed, he inadvertently also made a point (for whoever wants to read it that way, I certainly did) on how PR advisors are well suited to help brands address complex digital networks.  

On the inefficiencies – (original full version here and abstract paraphrasing below):  

Scott points at how programmatic media buying is built upon an unregulated stream of middlemen, which often leads to fraud, inaccuracy, and infrastructural fragility. An ad budget can pass through 5 distinct layers before it turns into an ad on a publisher’s website. As Scott highlights, this can create plenty of opportunities to misunderstand results and for flaws in application or execution to go unnoticed. 

Turns Out Algorithms Can’t Push Your Brands, But Your Audience Can

Scholars estimate that 88% of purchased clicks (including clicks that lead to views) are fake; on average 20% of influencers’ followers are thought to be bots and 20-25% of app downloads on the play and app stores are done by robots. MIT finds that targeting something as basic as gender was unsuccessful more than half the time (worse than random). Nielsen finds that in specific campaigns targeting household-income categories, only 25% of ads reach the right households. Location intelligence firm Location Science estimates that 65% of location-targeted ad spend doesn’t translate. Scott also notes that plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Facebook have alleged its targeting algorithm’s “accuracy” was between 9% and 41%. 

Furthermore, Scott reminds us that the infrastructure supporting the model (cookies) is about the crumble (😉) and that major ad buyers are already reducing investment (P&G and Uber each decreased programmatic ad spend by $200m). 

He calls for more regulation, more accountability from major publishers (Google and Facebook), and stronger taxation to help finance the management of the industries by side for users and buyers. 

The opportunity: Relatability over Reach 

We believe that a brand has better chances of succeeding if it first aims to understand how it can relate to a community before it tries to reach it. If the former is done thoroughly, the latter becomes cheap, powerful, and organic.  

The key to this lies within social media’s powerful inherent network effect from which proper messages benefit. Why ask an algorithm to push your brand if you can have independent opinion leaders do it for you, sometimes for free, and tag their authority along the way? Research commissioned by us in Southeast Asian countries (ThailandVietnam, and Myanmar) shows that content carried by influencers and publishers achieves more equity and trust than messages in digital ads among consumers. 

Taking a message-driven approach asks brands to think socially, and to be part of social conversations that matter to their audiences, building brand equity. Nike set the tone with its Colin Kaepernick Campaign and more brands have been following. Research finds that companies with strong stated purpose can expect between four and six times more purchase intention, organic ambassadorship, and trust from consumers. The coronavirus crisis and consumers’ vulnerability have increased expectations from brands to invest socially and half of consumers are now deterred by bad press on a company’s social issues. In Asia, social and purpose are becoming synonyms in some categories. 

Turns Out Algorithms Can’t Push Your Brands, But Your Audience Can

While Scott’s point about regulating programmatic media buying is important, we also see that there is a shift in brands’ approach to digital and social media marketing: moving away from a media-driven approach, and further investing in strategy based on social dynamics.  

The same shift is taking place for publishers, as the latest discussion around the Facebook papers proves it’s difficult to be both social and media.