Why Are Marketers Afraid of Google’s Ad Planner?

Wanna scare the pants off a fellow marketer? Just sneak up behind him and whisper the word “accountability” in his ear. Be sure to duck quick.

OK. Maybe that’s a little harsh. But with all the brouhaha around Google’s impending Ad Planner product, I can’t help but wonder just how scared folks are about being accountable for their media choices. Reading the cries of anguish voiced by some media folks in a “Wall Street Journal” article, I’m reminded of a famous line from “Hamlet” about protesting too much.

Sure, most fears revolve around the Google fox guarding the Internet traffic hen house. After all, isn’t it scary that the world’s biggest online advertising platform just might use its data in nefarious ways?

Sure, if you’re the kind of knee-jerk conspiracy theorist who sees a reptilian hiding behind every world leader’s throne.

But if you think about it, Google wouldn’t do stupid things with its data because it doesn’t have to do stupid things with its data. From a purely economic standpoint, it makes far more sense for Google to stay on the up-and-up rather than risk the credibility of its new ad measurement tool.

So why are people scared about Google getting into direct audience measurement? After all, considering its position, wouldn’t it make more sense for us marketers to flock to it if we knew we were going to get real numbers about online audiences instead of projections (such as those provided by Nielsen and comScore) extrapolated from mysterious panels of consumers?

Of course it would. But our industry has a terrible track record of wanting actual numbers. “Accountability” really is one of scariest words to most folks in the ad biz. (I’m excluding direct marketers here, just to keep the hate mail down. They don ‘t have quite the same issues when it comes to wanting to be measured.) And while our industry might talk a good game to our clients about measurement, accountability, and ROI (define), it’s rare to see anyone really putting his money — or his clients’ money — where his mouth is.

Why? Because even with all the measurement tools at our disposal, most agencies continue (with wonderful justifications — just ask!) to use old, outdated methods that deliberately avoid accountability. We stick with panels and projections and surveys to judge the size and makeup of our audiences. Many of us hold on to a secret belief that what we’re doing isn’t crass selling because that’s what direct marketers do. Don’t believe me? Have a discussion about measurement and ROI with your local hotshot creative director, and see what kind of reception you get. I’m betting you won’t end up in a heart-to-heart discussion about numbers.

I really wish I weren’t so cynical. And it’s probably not fair to lay it all on the agencies. There are plenty of clients out there who have their own pet theories, likes, dislikes, misconceptions, and so on when it comes to placing media. I don’t think a single account person hasn’t had to field client questions about why the president/CEO/VP marketing/whoever isn’t seeing the ad, especially when the person in question exists light years outside of the target demographic.

The scariest thing about Google’s new traffic measuring tool, or Quantcast’s existing tool, for that matter, is that direct audience measurement has the potential of authoritatively revealing that the Emperor might really be buck-naked. Maybe things aren’t what they seem. Maybe the ratings we’ve all been using aren’t reflections of reality but of an alternate reality we’ve all collectively believed in.

Direct measurement isn’t ambiguous. It can’t be explained away. There isn’t much to argue with, other than esoteric discussions about the technical workings of counting users. But these arguments are deflections. No system is perfect, but a direct measurement system is, by its very nature, a lot closer than statistical projections.

The really scary part of all of this isn’t that direct measurement might have some technical bugs to smooth out. Rather, it’s a truly disruptive technology and we don’t like disruptions. Make no mistake about it: direct measurement will be disruptive. Examples such as what’s happened in markets employing Arbitron’s Portable People Meter and what you learn when you look at TiVo’s ratings/commercial-viewing datashow that direct measurement can have a profound disruptive effect on what we perceive as reality.

Whether Ad Planner is perfect or Quantcast’s technology achieves critical mass and Nielsen-level industry acceptance is irrelevant. Direct measurement will become the standard at some not-so-distant point in the future. As media becomes more fragmented, as advertiser dollars are stretched, and as clients demand more accountability, the past’s ostrich metrics will seem more like the anachronistic holdovers from advertising’s old days.

Do yourself a favor: start to gear up for direct measurement. If you’re nostalgic for the old days, go TiVo a couple of episodes of “Mad Men.”

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