Tired of feeding an opaque, slimy industry of bots and fake clicks
Procter & Gamble, one of the largest and most sophisticated advertisers in the world, reported on Thursday that sales were slightly down in the fourth quarter and for the fiscal year, despite consumer price inflation. It’s the epitome of corporate revenue stagnation: only price increases keep revenues from declining. An activist investor – formerly called “corporate raider” – is breathing down its neck. So cost cutting to raise profits is the trick.
When a corporate giant cuts costs, it cuts the revenues of other companies.
And it did. Its “selling, general, and administrative expenses,” which include advertising and marketing, fell 7% in the quarter. Net income jumped 12%. And digital advertising took it on the chin in P&G’s earnings report:
Digital ad spending was lower versus a high base period and due to current period choices to temporarily restrict spending in digital forums where our ads were not being placed according to our standards and specifications.
Back in the day before digital ads, advertisers lived by a rule of thumb: Half of our advertising doesn’t work and is wasted; we just don’t know which half.
Digital advertising with all its consumer tracking technologies and direct micro-targeting promoted by now withering “adtech” companies or booming Facebook was supposed to have changed that equation. But it hasn’t. The hard part still is figuring out which half is wasted. But P&G is working on it.
When P&G speaks about cutting digital advertising, people listen, other companies follow, and the advertising industry quakes in its boots.
In April, P&G announced some details of its $12 billion or so cost-cutting binge over five years. This includes slashing $2 billion in advertising expenditures – among them $1 billion in media and $500 million in agency fees.
A year ago P&G announced that it would move away from ads on Facebook that micro-target specific consumers. Facebook is trying to leverage its enormous trove of consumer data to enhance its income. This has been its big promise. But P&G found that this micro-targeting of specific consumers based on the data Facebook has collected on them reduced reach and wasn’t working.
During the earnings call with analysts on Thursday (transcript via Seeking Alpha), CFO Jon Moeller explained the gist of it:
“In the fourth quarter, the reduction in marketing that occurred was almost all in the digital space. And what it reflected was a choice to cut spending from a digital standpoint where it was ineffective: where either we were serving bots as opposed to human beings, or where the placement of ads was not facilitating the equity of our brands.”
He touched on the two most common complaints about digital advertising scams:
- Advertisers are paying for ads that are viewed and clicked on by bots, not humans.
- Ads are placed by thousands of automated “ad exchanges” that are out of control of the advertiser on sites and pages that don’t match the advertiser’s products.
The entire vast space between legitimate advertisers and legitimate publishers is populated by a murky slimy world of often invisible entities, usually automated, that try to extract their cut and in the process further dilute the effectiveness of advertising expenses.
So P&G cut over $100 million out of its digital advertising spend in the fourth quarter, and this is what happened, according to Moeller: “We didn’t see a reduction in the growth rate.” And he added, “What that tells me is that that spending that we cut was largely ineffective.”
These spending cuts on digital ads are part of a larger strategy to more quickly halt spending on things – from ad campaigns to product development programs – that aren’t working, CEO David Taylor told the Wall Street Journal:
“We got some data that said either it was in a bad place or it was not effective,” Mr. Taylor said of the digital cuts. “And we shut it down and said, ‘We’re not going to follow a formula of how much you spend or share of voice. We want every dollar to add value for the consumer or add value for our stakeholders.”
P&G didn’t say if it would shift its ad spend from digital to other media, such as television. TV networks have long been clamoring that much of digital ad dollars disappear without trace in the opaque world of the Internet. But back in the day when we lived by the rule that half of ad spending was wasted and that we just didn’t know which half, there was no digital advertising – and TV networks got a big part of the pie, and still, half of the ad money just disappeared without producing results. So TV isn’t going to be the solution.
Marketing executives of other companies too have long riled against the murkiness of digital advertising, the false promises, the intractability of the Internet, the clicks and views by bots on which advertisers are wasting their money, and the billions of dollars that get blown without results. But getting a grip on what works and what doesn’t is hard.
There’s a larger issue: Retail spending (not adjusted for inflation) has grown on average 2.4% per year in the US over the past five years. Over the same period, digital advertising nearly doubled to $72.5 billion in 2016. Clearly, even digital advertising – despite the lure of Facebook and the like – cannot induce consumers overall to spend more and increase the size of the overall pie for advertisers. It can only, at best, divide up the pie differently.
And when one of the most sophisticated high-tech advertisers in the world decides it is overspending on digital advertising and is able to very carefully remove the rot, thus bringing down its costs without hurting its revenues, other companies will follow, with some consequences for the relentless but often ineffective surge of digital advertising dollars.
Investors who bought the hype of “adtech” in the world of digital advertising are left holding the bag.
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