This is for everyone by Tess Alps

The Olympics and Paralympics provided some of the biggest television highlights of last year.  In the weeks before the 2016 Games, there were several opportunities to rewatch that soul-lifting opening ceremony from the 2012 Olympics and I couldn’t resist reliving London’s big day. One of the most inspiring moments was when the suburban house flew up to reveal Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, sitting at his laptop and, across the audience, the phrase "This is for everyone" shone out.

What a vision that was for the internet: an open technology that would benefit all humanity by connecting everyone and everything.

Amid the quasi-religious philosophy and optimism that early internet evangelists invoked, people could see that there would be disruption for many on the road, but we were told that the pain would be worth it to create the democratic, meritocratic Nirvana on the horizon.

It's well-documented that newspapers have suffered more than most media businesses in this transformation, in print advertising revenue at least. Looked at more positively, internet technologies - web, mobile, apps - have allowed newsbrands to reach many more people across the world. And, in a thriving online advertising market, this should at least offset some of the losses that print advertising is suffering.

Last year, on the day the Guardian Media Group announced its print advertising had declined and its digital advertising was down despite growth in online readers, Facebook announced that its first quarter 2016 net income had tripled and that its margins had increased from 26% to 37%. 

So, after congratulating Facebook and commiserating with the Guardian, what should we make of this?

There are two enormous issues here

The first is about the developing advertising landscape and its impact on advertisers, agencies and media-owners; the second is linked but arguably even more serious and relates to democracy and culture.

Throughout 2016 we kept reading that 90% of the growth in mobile ad revenue was going to Google and Facebook. You can see how that might happen. These two global behemoths are force fields so magnetic that they suck every penny towards them.

They talk at the highest levels to global companies (and governments - more of which later). Their huge revenues and margins allow them to be so well-resourced that they are omnipresent, not just within media agencies but within marketing departments and creative agencies too.

They offer their expertise for free and they have loads of their in-house (and unaudited) data to share. They are lavish entertainers and at the drop a hat will whiz CEOs off to the West Coast or somewhere else lovely.

They are generous sponsors so are able to put their name everywhere and buy up the goodwill of many influencers. The Guardian was replaced last year as the headline sponsor of the Edinburgh TV Festival by YouTube. They are mostly staffed by talented and delightful people whom many of us know well and trust.

Everyone wants to be their friend - or at least no-one wants to be their enemy. I blame Google and Facebook for none of this. They're just doing their job.

What must agencies and advertisers do?

Agencies' responsibility should be first to their clients, not just for today but for the future too. If they don't do this they will have no business in a few years.

So it's essential that media agencies invest only the money that is justified on a day-to-day basis, based on independent and impartial metrics. It is surely not acceptable that Google and Facebook - and others - define their own metrics, count their own inventory and even analyse their own ROI.

We need agencies, marketers and industry ruling bodies to demand quality, impartial research and to challenge publicly the hyping of any trends. Internet media should be subject to the same scrutiny and scepticism that every other medium receives. The revelations towards the end of 2016 about Facebook’s inflated reporting of online video viewing will hopefully light a fire under this process, but agencies shouldn’t have waited for confessions to demand better.

We also need agencies to ensure that their own income is not influencing their planning decisions and this probably means working with procurement more openly to rewrite contracts or to change their fees to business-based ones.

Advertisers must make sure that their contracts allow agencies to be profitable without resorting to other 'practices' and then they will be able to trust the advice that comes from those agencies again.

But we also need agencies and advertisers to consider the longer-term effect of where they decide to spend media money. Do they really want a world where there is no national, quality, journalism or culturally specific entertainment to place their ads in? That will be the inevitable consequence if The Guardian and many other media like it cannot monetise the hard-won audiences they have built online.

The internet was supposed to be 'for everyone' but the idealism of an open web has mutated into an increasingly closed and unpoliced world of apps, and a world dominated by a very few quasi-monopolies.

This is where we start to go way beyond our world of marketing into some seriously heavy duty public policy issues. Katharine Viner's ISBA speech last year highlighted just how dependent newspapers have allowed themselves to become on a handful of internet platforms, reaching readers increasingly through the social media gatekeepers who take the lion’s share of the ad revenue generated from other companies’ investment in quality content.

This situation has many revenue implications but even more editorial ones. Now that news articles are being served up based on unknown 'personalised' algorithms these giant tech companies are in effect acting as editorial organisations while posing as neutral distribution platforms. The fake news fiasco around the election of Donald Trump is a result; and advertisers are effectively paying for these disreputable sites through the undiscriminating online programmatic ad market.

Democracy is at risk

If it was any other medium, regulators like Ofcom, national governments and international bodies would expect to closely shape how this scenario develops. Some things are happening here, particularly in the sphere of privacy and data, but the wheels grind slowly. In the meantime, valuable media companies are being starved of vital and deserved revenues while others wallow in cash.

While we wait for official organisations to grasp this giant nettle there's plenty our industry can do by using media investments more wisely. These could not be more crucial. We all need to examine our consciences and strategies. Let's be brave enough to engage in some open debate. This really is an issue 'for everyone'.

This article was originally published by Mediatel

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