What Ad Buyers Really Think About Google, Facebook, Twitter and Everything in Between

A candid discussion with 7 insiders

The major digital media platforms—full of big gains, big hype and often a lack of transparency—have made the advertising universe a complicated, fragmented place. And with eMarketer predicting digital ad spending to swell to $77.4 billion in 2017, up 16 percent versus this year, it's a domain that's poised to evolve even more rapidly. We asked seven ad buyers—from three consumer brands and three agencies, plus one independent—to talk about what's right and what's wrong with a dozen platforms with which they do business.

"The definitions are different for YouTube, for Facebook, for Twitter, and that is really not user-friendly for any agency or for any brand to work across all of them for proper reporting," says Liya Sharif, Qualcomm's senior director, marketing. Adds Bruce Kiernan, practice lead for performance marketing at MEC North America: "I would say from an agency perspective, we are frustrated. Facebook and Google are not going to give up their data and open up the gates to their walled gardens anytime soon."

Meanwhile, others are more positive about the process. "[Facebook] allows you to basically upload any type of custom audience and not just create a look-alike audience, but you can scale that according to your needs and play with different sizes of audiences," notes Tim Villanueva, head of media partnerships at Fetch.

Here, these and more buyers weigh in on topics ranging from measurement and pricing to which platforms still need improvement.

Adweek: Which ad platforms or features struggle to meet your needs?

Tim Villanueva, Fetch: Twitter's dashboard in general, [in terms of] just being able to manage the operations as well as setting up, executing and optimizing a campaign, is just a little more cumbersome than other platforms. Managing tweets at that level, finding results and quickly making decisions. You're having to extract [those things] and do a lot of data manipulation to really make the decisions you need to make.

Kevin Scholl, director, digital marketing, Red Roof Inn: I'll also pile on the Twitter cloud. Honestly, Twitter is one of these tools that we're talking about actually spending less money with. We started strong on Twitter, but as we've gotten with using other tools and really finding who we are with our campaigns, Twitter for us has become less of an investment.

Lizzy Moore, independent digital media buyer: Spotify has some limitations on how well you can target and how many creative versions or rotations you can have compared to some other options.

Villanueva: I'd say Spotify is kind of focused on brand advertisers today, and, as a result, they kind of priced out more performance-oriented advertisers. [At the same time], I understand they want to preserve a part of their environment for more premium brands.

Jon Guljord, senior director, mobile marketing, Expedia: I think a fair push for Facebook would be to provide more … let's call it impression-level data. And who you're actually reaching from an impression basis and even audiences without having to necessarily pay for that click from the audience. I think it would really help all performance marketers if they could just be a bit more transparent with some of the impression-level data.

Bruce Kiernan, MEC: I completely agree. And that also applies to Google. With Facebook having access to as many users and as much rich data as they do, I think a huge gap is allowing marketers to actually see what goes on within their paid media activity and to then add those insights into a more holistic kind of strategic view—how this campaign is performing and what part Facebook plays in my bigger picture.

Amy Manus, senior director of media, Razorfish: Facebook is newer, shinier and getting better results for many clients in regards to efficiency and engagement. However, from a platform standpoint, they are very different in terms of how video fits into the overall user experience. It is not apples to apples; and for brands it should not be either.

Moore: A lot of clients see AOL as what the internet used to be and not where they want to be now. I think they do have a lot of capabilities as far as their targeting and what you can do with creative and things like that. But I think the perception isn't as positive for clients because they think of it as the "You've Got Mail" platform.

Guljord: Google's universal app campaign [UAC] product, to get fairly specific, rolls up several products into one, and it is a black box. Getting more transparency would be super helpful. I'd speculate that Google feels like UAC fills a very particular role across their ad products and this one for a particular audience—probably app developers—and it makes it very easy to get things going. But for a sophisticated advertiser, or as Expedia, or even folks who aren't as sophisticated as Expedia, I would imagine advertisers would really benefit from more transparency and more levers with the UAC product.

Villanueva: I would say just releasing Google Play ads [for app-install campaigns] was a huge deal for them, [especially since] Apple's App [Store search] ads are coming out in September. Though right now, you can only run Google Play ads if you're running a Google search program, and it's just an extension of that. That's something I would like to see from Google, just to be able to have more tools to plan for the App Store, breaking that out and managing a separate strategy.

What about YouTube?

Moore: Not all of YouTube's ad positions drive to a website, which is a weakness and I think eliminates some of the business that they could be [getting]. You also aren't as social on YouTube as you are with other social networks where you watch a video and can like, share, comment to all of your friends who are not likely on YouTube but are on the social platform you are watching the video on. They also have custom content with big names behind it, but I don't feel the marketing of the content has been great. People know what is on Netflix. People don't know what is on YouTube that is worth watching like prime-time programming. In my mind, YouTube is still where you go to find a video on plumbing or applying makeup rather than where you go to watch TV.

Manus: YouTube has strength within the Google platform in terms of AdWords and [DoubleClick] integration, SEO value and third-party tracking. It is a good, cost-efficient option for clients to better understand customer insights and implications with the brand, creative and messaging before spending a large investment on TV or as dollars are shifting from TV to online.

Which platforms have recently improved the most?

Guljord: A year ago I couldn't say this, but now I can say that Google has done a great job at really embracing mobile. So I think 2016 has been a great leap forward for them. For a while, I think there was a question as to when they were going to get in gear. They're not all the way there yet, but I think they're certainly heading in the right direction.

Villanueva: I would agree Google has really stepped up their mobile game, developed quite a few new tools to Google Play Ads, device modifiers and universal app campaigns to show that they're truly invested. And they have built out a specialist team for mobile that is willing to support our agencies, which speeds up mobile adoption on Google. I think Facebook and Instagram, of course, continue to have that unique combination through targeting, really powerful API and user interface tools. And then now extending that onto Instagram and their Facebook Audience Network really provides them with scale and reach that it's hard to compare in the market.

Kiernan: From my standpoint, focusing on mostly performance marketing clients, we've really been impressed with some of the leaps Amazon has taken—not just with their own tools and services or being able to make those [features] available in a self-service kind of model, but just being really open to the sharing of data, insight into conversion data that may happen within their closed walls.

Moore: I like Spotify compared to their competitors like Pandora or iHeartRadio because of the way that they are growing. Pandora's huge, but they don't have as much room for growth because everyone's used them before, and you're either loyal to them or you're not. Yet Spotify still has a lot of room to grow, and they have a great international presence as well.

Kiernan: There's a lot going on in the news about these moves that AOL—or really Verizon—is making with all these assets they're collecting. As a media buyer and someone in this position at the agency, I'm very anxious to find out what the product enhancements or what their new products are going to look like. And it takes time to kind of infuse some of these big titans of data and innovation into a product offering for buyers and agencies. I'm very eager to find out what's going to happen with AOL next year as they get more of their ducks in a row and start to put out competitive products to some of these huge growth properties that we've seen this year with others like Snapchat, Facebook and Google.

What in particular intrigues you about those moves?

Kiernan: I'm interested in AOL's content, Yahoo's data and Verizon's everything.

Is there a platform that needs to improve data targeting versus its competitors?

Manus: Pinterest. You are held to their targeting, which can be limiting. It's also a tricky platform to move users down the funnel for payoff.

Villanueva: I think the biggest weakness for Pinterest is that they haven't really gotten aboard the app marketing train, which now Facebook is driving quite a significant portion of its revenue through. Now it's just getting on board. I think that's a huge pie they're missing out on.

Guljord: [Facebook] advertisers can't have a single campaign that is set to either show an ad for web or mobile app install. Moreover, [mobile app install] ads don't give the user an option to visit the advertiser's website. Instead, advertisers have to manage the complexity and trade-offs of multiple campaigns for different objectives. To contrast, with Google, if AdWords knows a user doesn't have the app, the default action is to the web, and app extensions on that ad will direct a user to the install.

How about measurement?

Villanueva: Twitter has work to do in terms of their reporting, and I think that's the area where they're really struggling and are behind. Twitter is one of our primary platforms that we use to target audiences, and it's very important to us. We'd love to see sort of a workable reporting dashboard in the platform where each report takes metrics for a given side.

Sharif: From our standpoint at Qualcomm, I'd like to see more universally defined language of success in certain categories. There's the word "like" or "engagement" or the word "view." It means different things for different platforms. So I'd like to see unification, just like in wireless standards we have a single standard [data] we use and people understand what it means.

Scholl: There is a point when we deliver campaign information to executive leadership teams, and [data terms] do not match. They ask, "What does that mean? What does this mean?"

Sharif: I wish we had like a standard body [for performance metrics]. I'm serious.

What ad features work well but aren't as publicized as, say, Facebook video?

Kiernan: Amazon self-service tools have been great in terms of being able to tap into external, plug-and-play sources, data feeds and things like that. So we can do some really unique and meaningful targeting within the Amazon environment or audience extension. We also love the way in which we're able to pull kinds of reporting and gain insights from within the Amazon environment about what some of our consumers are doing throughout the purchase [funnel]. Such as, if they have a tendency to purchase products from Amazon or get it direct from a retailer.

Manus: Tumblr and Reddit have good options that are not always top of mind for marketers. While Tumblr has received some bad press over the last year in the industry with [parent Yahoo's] revenue losses and a missed attempt at combining sales teams with Yahoo, the acquisition has had some positive impacts in regards to advertising opportunities. Ad formats and options are [now] more closely aligned with other social platforms where you can now test audience receptivity within many niche targets without having a dedicated strategy specifically for the platform through sponsored posts, video, etc.

Reddit, likewise, is attempting to take some of the bewilderment out of advertising on the platform with more standard social ad units including Promoted User Posts. From a paid-social perspective, Reddit is a great platform for the right target audience where it has reach, rich targeting capabilities, an active and engaged audience, and is cost-effective. However, users are adverse to advertising, and it is not a direct-response advertising option, but it can be a useful platform for content or aligning with specific subreddits where it makes sense for your brand.

Sharif: We've had good success rates with Twitter . Because, as a b-to-b brand, we have to be a lot more focused on the audience, and Twitter allows us to reach the influencers very directly that we care about and very quickly.

What about pricing?

Manus: [YouTube's] cost is more expensive compared to many video options. Engagement is down as the competition is rising from players like Facebook and Amazon.

Scholl: The conversation with Spotify, especially comparing it to kind of what we're getting out of spend on other platforms, was surprising.

Manus: Facebook, along with Instagram, is cheap now, but prices are going up.

Guljord: This is kind of a general statement, but the way I think about it is, you're expensive if you don't give me the capabilities to optimize what I need to optimize against.

Lastly, as Snapchat's advertising API gains steam, where does it fit into all of this?

Kiernan: If you look at some of the volume that Snapchat is projected to get over the next year—double digits—it's definitely going to be a major player in this market. Maybe not today, but as they start to aggregate data from multiple mobile users and figure out ways to kind of connect those dots with other platforms on other channels, I can definitely see them making some headway in the category.

Moore: Snapchat's capabilities are currently limited. So unless I'm a brand who wants to put a sticker on someone's Snapchat photo and really not get anything else out of it besides branding, I don't think it's a viable option for most advertisers right now. Until they have other products that can compete with other ad options, it's not going to be as big as it could be.

This story first appeared in the September 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.
@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.