“Something is rotten in Denmark.” Tom Hespos challenges the ethics of agency-side audience networks

January 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Rather sooner than we might have expected the question of agency side audience-networks, or demand-side networks, is raising concerns about ethics. Tom Hespos, Chairman and President of Underscore Marketing, who has been a leading conversationalist about online advertising since he helped found the Old-Timers list back in 1999, confronts the dilemma of buyers acting as sellers in a column for iMedia. Speaking for the concerns of many independent ad sellers Tom writes, “Something is rotten in Denmark.”

Tom asks three questions at the center of the agency-as-ad-network question:

1. Who owns the user data? Tom is ambivalent; perhaps no one.

2. Is it morally correct for agencies to be opaque with publishers and/or clients as to how they’re leveraging data? Opaque means impenetrable, not transparent. According to Answers.com, it means “to be so obscure as to be unintelligible.” Tom puts it to us as a moral question. If we are made uncomfortable by that characterization, what are our professional instincts? Is the media model of the future destined to be “so obscure as to be unintelligible?”

3. Is it okay for agencies to both buy and sell inventory to the same advertiser? Simply, can agencies serve two masters? Can anyone?

Whether you judge, or judge not, the answers to these questions are foregone conclusions. The ad network model that the new in-house agency networks seek to replace has already crashed on the rocks of the ethical and commercial anxieties it creates. Ask the publishers. Ask the agencies. Ask the privacy lobbyists. They have  given the answers: one cannot serve two masters, the future of media is not to be obscure and unintelligible and, finally, the data belongs to the user.

Perhaps the message will finally make it to the advertising clients when all this is over: HELP, we’re drowning down here, and there are no good answers for saving brand relationships in a world fragmented by technology that we can offer relying on the resources at hand.   

Agencies must be paid to create and buy advertising, not to sell it. Something must be done to fix agency compensation lest media vanish forever behind a smoke screen – and with it, intelligible contact between consumers and their brands.

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