In 2016, we lost legends like Muhammad Ali, Sharon Jones, John Glenn, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Gwen Ifill. We even lost Abe Vigoda, who in recent years was perhaps most famous for being the subject of IsAbeVigodaDead.com. And yet, as sad as it is to not have these luminaries with us, what I miss most in 2016 is the loss of trust.
Trust has been eroding for years, but 2016 felt like the tsunami that wiped away whatever was left. Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" as its international word of the year, and it seems fitting that the word itself sounds like it has no meaning. The counterpart to "post-truth" is "fake news," and yet there are no repercussions to sharing "fake news" (or, as it was previously known, "lies," or "propaganda"). Social networks, media companies, politicians, voters, pundits and others who lie tend to only reap rewards without facing consequences. Friends and family members, meanwhile, fact-check each other and then digitally defriend each other or make plans to avoid each other during the holidays.
The ad industry has become an enabler of this post-truth era. Alongside, above, or below practically every lie that's spread, there's an ad. But it gets worse for advertisers. We have less confidence that those ads are seen or clicked by real people. Real ads are often running on fake sites jacked up by fake users that tally fake views, engagements or clicks. There are sins of omission and commission here; there are a lot of sellers rewarded for inflating numbers, and there are a lot of buyers rewarded for not questioning those bogus reports. Crack down on it and the reports don't look like they're all going "up and to the right." Once the reports are inflated, it's harder to correct them.
The difference between the political sphere and the advertising sphere is that in advertising, losing trust does have consequences. Brands change agencies almost as fast as they turn over campaigns. Chief marketing officers need to constantly have an eye out for their next move. Agencies, no longer perceived as agents of the brands they represent but as costs that procurement teams must minimize, can't invest in proactively bringing new ideas to their clients. Publishers hand over their most important assets to swarms of programmatic bots but don't invalidate malicious bot traffic from their logs. And as long as ad-tech companies get away with reporting on meaningless reach numbers, they're not going to police any inventory that passes through their servers. What do consumers do? They tune all of it out with ad blockers, ignoring the grim reality that they hurt the media companies they love the most.
This must change.
As a society, we can't function in a post-truth era. It either leads to anarchy or autocracy. Either way, it's ugly, and it's not what most people want.
As an industry, we can't keep on going this route either. We must put restoring trust at the center of everything we do. We must make the restoration of trust the first agenda of every meeting, whether internally or with clients and partners. We must make this the subject we keep hearing about from every single keynote speaker at every event and boondoggle we attend. We must put a question in every RFP that asks, "What will you do to earn our trust?" followed by the question, "What will we need to do to earn yours?" And then we need to revisit those answers every quarter to track progress. The first and last key performance indicator we should look at is how we're doing on restoring the trust across buyers, sellers and consumers. We need to punish those who abuse our trust and disproportionately reward any colleague or partner or vendor or client that proves to be worthy of trust.
We must trade post-truth for truth, fake news for news and impressions for tangible changes in behavior from the people we are trying to reach.
Right now, we're all in glass houses, we're all casting stones, and we're all on the verge of destroying an industry we love. Let's put down the stones, build more solid foundations and learn to work together once and for all.
David Berkowitz is the chief strategy officer at Sysomos.