News & Views

Opinion / Pay No Attention To The Bot Behind The Curtain

by Nick Parish

Every day I get up in the morning and go to work
And do my job whatever
I need some
Sentimental hygiene

Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene

It’s likely your New Year’s content diet has already been cratered by an emerging technology cruise missile from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with headlines like ‘Top 5 Trends from CES’ and ‘What CES Means For Your Marketing Plan’ squawking epithets in your feeds like broken Hatchimals.

That’s because marketing heavy-hitters waved goodbye to the family in the Alps or Barbados and headed to the first of an annual series of exercises in sentimental hygiene: a collective corporate cleanse in the desert, a technology-will-save-us pill for any business ill.

Like SXSW, Cannes and many others, CES purports to allow marketers to step outside of the fray and focus on what matters to their businesses: the future, inspirational thought leadership and the future of inspirational thought leadership.

But while they’re all watching Shangy in their VR pyjamas looking for the next big thing, the long list of bad actors picking their pockets is operating in the present. Whether via slightly-cooked business practices or outright fraud, sometimes it seems like devious scams are where the greatest commercial innovations in digital marketing are happening.

It’s not only bid rigging, kickbacks and rebates, or digital platform duopolies monetizing the impoverishment of civil discourse and getting caught with their thumbs on the scale every time you turn around. The award for Most Innovative Crook in Digital for 2016 goes to Methbot, a lovely little piece of software that has tweaked its way to a take of between $3 and $5m daily for months. As fraud targeting firm White Ops revealed in December, Methbot impersonates, through its own custom browser, a fleet of users clicking through thousands of hours of real video ads on fake publisher sites. Just since October, it's responsible for nearly $200 million in client dollars going to the dark side. From one scam!

As one publishing executive told me, ‘It’s the equivalent of giving your money to a Nigerian prince via e-mail. [Agencies] think they’re getting our inventory at a “great price,” which actually drives our prices down and puts us on the hook for more arduous terms in proving our audience, all because they’re buying garbage.’

Large marketers averaged $10m lost to fraud last year, according to a survey by White Ops and the ANA. Overall, the issue costs the industry $7bn annually.

Back to our publisher: ‘Agencies will decry the fraud being committed and the dollars wasted, but the primary reason it’s happening is because they’re buying garbage through blind exchanges with really no idea who they’re paying. It’s undermining anyone making money on advertising on the web at scale.’

Before we broke for the holiday we wrote about taking care of ourselves and others at work. In the meantime, one of the world’s most important advertising executives has taken personal responsibility for his company’s failures in those departments. But it’s not just inside agencies that we’re failing to look after things. Marketing spend on autopilot to the lowest bidder has created an enormous toxic cesspool, which is beginning to reflect poorly on the brands that remain in it.

As we enter a new year it’s time for a review of the power structures of marketing. While everyone at CES gets a Men In Black-style bamboozle from all the cool tech, and everyone’s hearts start fluttering again from the cool stuff that’s out there, in reality the house is exceptionally disordered.

Are you active in following your dollars and combatting the abuses they may be enabling, to bring about an environment enriching quality publishers? Or are you just looking for some sentimental hygiene?