How Brands and Agencies Are Fighting Back Against Facebook and Google’s Measurement Snafus

Diving deep into the duopoly

Some are storming the gates of the walled garden approach to measurement. Illustration: eBoy
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a $1 billion U.S. advertiser, is fed up with playing by Facebook’s rules. As a result, the carmaker concocted its own set of measurement standards that combine video views with a layer of additional stats, prodded by what it sees as a lack of comparability for Facebook to other media it buys.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we need to standardize our own view of the metrics,” explains Amy McNeil, head of digital media at FCA U.S. “We are collaborating with [our media agency] Universal McCann on the addition of time spent as an engagement qualifier, along with delivering on demo and in-view.” Such work piecing together custom metrics puts “a value on that platform, their reach, how successful we were in video completion,” she adds. “When we can prove out that it looks like any other buy that we’re doing, that’s when we increase our [budget]. Until we can get that third-party validation, our spend levels are what they are.”

That can’t be good news for Facebook—or Google, which is facing similar pushback from marketers. Here’s why FCA and other marketers are so frustrated with this veritable duopoly. The two behemoths are poised to gobble up a staggering 60.4 percent—or roughly $50.1 billion—of this year’s $83 billion U.S. digital advertising market, with the remaining 39.6 percent split among all other publishers and platforms, per eMarketer. Moreover, a report from trade group Digital Content Next claims that 90 percent of the growth in digital spend between 2015 and 2016 went to one or the other.

Despite their collective clout—or maybe because of—Facebook and Google’s walled gardens limit the amount of data and analytics that advertisers can access to track the performance of their campaigns, specifically when it comes to comparing ads to other digital platforms. More and more brands are taking a harder stance on the walled gardens that Facebook and Google have built around their metrics. Procter & Gamble—the U.S.’ largest advertiser at $2.4 billion last year, per Kantar—has pledged to cut spend if the platforms don’t clean up their measurement act by the end of this year. “Adopt the minimum [Media Rating Council’s] standard and stop peddling your own version—it only creates confusion,” P&G CMO Marc Pritchard recently told attendees at the 4A’s Transformation Conference in Los Angeles, taking a direct jab at Facebook and Google. “Then we can focus on the hard work of analyzing effectiveness and making investment choices,” he said, according to a transcript of his presentation.

The root of the problem

As the two giants of digital, advertisers have long leaned on Facebook and Google to make sense of their campaign data and relay back what’s working and what isn’t. But as more money moves from traditional media to digital, a growing number of marketers are beginning to question what exactly that data entails and are pushing for unified metrics that align with all other digital media.

“They are a duopoly that has the market power to act like a monopolist,” notes Mike Mothner, CEO of Wpromote. “The fact is, advertising on these platforms is so important that it overcomes any shortcoming or lack of comfort that we have.”

When asked if Facebook—which attracted nearly $27 billion in ad revenue in 2016—takes measurement seriously, conventional wisdom among digital agency execs is that CEO Mark Zuckerberg would rather concentrate on getting drones in the sky to distribute Facebook’s signal globally than focus on nitty-gritty measurement issues closer to the ground.

And when it comes to Google, some agency execs would rather avoid that fight, given the Mountain View, Calif.-based digital giant’s control over search advertising and the troves of data that underpin its eMarketer-estimated $28.5 billion U.S. search business this year.

Chiefly, the measurement concerns hinge on watchdog Media Rating Council’s 3-year-old viewability standard, which charges advertisers when 50 percent of a display ad is in view for one second—two seconds for video spots. The metric has become the de facto way publishers transact digital media, but platforms like Facebook and Google’s YouTube are notoriously reluctant to give out too much data to advertisers for fear of, some industry players allege, losing a competitive advantage and advertising dollars.

Today, marketers are demanding more. “There is a lack of confidence in whether or not my digital media is performing for my business KPIs,” explains Jeff Liang, chief digital officer at Assembly. “I think these two companies want to keep it closed as long as possible for their own benefit, and that’s what’s making things really tough.”

While both Facebook and YouTube do employ third-party measurement firms, including Moat, Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify to track viewability, neither company has undergone a full-blown audit by the MRC to be accredited as a platform, a process that requires a thorough vetting to examine the ins and outs of how data is collected and reported.

“It’s sort of a basic building block,” notes Joe Barone, GroupM’s managing partner of digital advertising operations. “We need to be able to measure whether or not it was seen, so that we can measure and value everything else about it.”

Viewability is undoubtedly a buzzy topic, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg of advertisers’ qualms with the tech giants. In a series of interviews with more than 20 companies for this story, marketers cited different variations of broader gripes with the platforms’ reach, frequency and attribution data as well as lingering concerns about brand safety in light of major marketers recently pulling YouTube ads that ran alongside objectionable content.

Planting the seeds

Tensions between the two sides reached a boiling point in September when Facebook revealed it had been reporting inflated video metrics to agencies that tracked the average amount of time people spent watching clips—although it was quick to note the mistake did not affect billing. Since then, Facebook has disclosed a handful of other errors while rolling out new measurement tools. The revelations caused a slew of marketers, including card-carrying members of the Association of National Advertisers, to ask for both Google and Facebook to pull aside the curtains of secrecy that veiled their ad business to give marketers a complete look at how their campaigns perform.

“What we hear from our members is that they can’t integrate the media with other media to create a more holistic plan because they can’t transport data,” says Bill Duggan, group evp at the ANA.

In February, both companies agreed to undergo audits from the MRC to become accredited for third-party viewability measurement this year, which the MRC says are on track to begin during the second quarter.

There are some potential twists in measuring walled gardens like Facebook and Google, though. While auditors (also called CPA firms) are required to analyze all parts of a business’ technology, they also have to work a bit around each company’s proprietary code to keep it safe from fraudsters and other perpetrators.

“Everything is fair game as part of the audit if it contributes to what we’re auditing,” says David Gunzerath, svp and associate director at the MRC. “That said, we recognize the importance of these companies’ ability to maintain confidentiality around the proprietary nature of certain techniques, so something like a digital measurement company’s filtration techniques … if that information gets in the public domain, the bad guys will know how to work around it, and that’s bad for everybody.”

This story first appeared in the April 17, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.