Category 1 storm clouds are gathering over what has traditionally been one of the most lucrative, and perhaps only profitable, sectors to come out of Silicon Valley in decades: online advertising.
Two months ago, it was P&G which fired the first shot across the "adtech" bow when not long after it announced it was slashing its digital ad spending because it thought it was not getting the kind of return on investment it desired, it made a striking discovery: “We didn’t see a reduction in the growth rate.” CFO Jon Moeller said “What that tells me is that that spending that we cut was largely ineffective.”
Speaking to the WSJ, P&G CEO David Taylor echoed Moeller when he explained that cuts on digital ads are part of a larger strategy to more quickly halt spending on things – from ad campaigns to product development programs - that aren't working: “we got some data that said either it was in a bad place or it was not effective,” Taylor said of the digital cuts. “And we shut it down and said, ‘We’re not going to follow a formula of how much you spend or share of voice. We want every dollar to add value for the consumer or add value for our stakeholders.”
Previously P&G's CFO had said that “the reduction in marketing that occurred was almost all in the digital space. And what it reflected was a choice to cut spending from a digital standpoint where it was ineffective: where either we were serving bots as opposed to human beings, or where the placement of ads was not facilitating the equity of our brands."
Moeller also touched on the two most common complaints about digital advertising scams: advertisers are paying for ads that are viewed and clicked on by bots, not humans; and ads are placed by thousands of automated “ad exchanges” that are out of control of the advertiser on sites and pages that don’t match the advertiser’s products.
Commenting on this, in late July, Wolf Richter summarized the state of affairs as follows:
Marketing executives of other companies too have long riled against the murkiness of digital advertising, the false promises, the intractability of the Internet, the clicks and views by bots on which advertisers are wasting their money, and the billions of dollars that get blown without results. But getting a grip on what works and what doesn’t is hard.
There’s a larger issue: Retail spending (not adjusted for inflation) has grown on average 2.4% per year in the US over the past five years. Over the same period, digital advertising nearly doubled to $72.5 billion in 2016. Clearly, even digital advertising – despite the lure of Facebook and the like – cannot induce consumers overall to spend more and increase the size of the overall pie for advertisers. It can only, at best, divide up the pie differently.
And when one of the most sophisticated high-tech advertisers in the world decides it is overspending on digital advertising and is able to very carefully remove the rot, thus bringing down its cost without hurting its revenues, other companies will follow, with some consequences for the relentless but often ineffective surge of digital advertising dollars.
Of course, the implications to this admission that online advertising was either being gamed by bots, or generally underperforming were significant, as it jeopardized the future revenue streams of two of the biggest companies in the world, Alphabet (aka Google) and Facebook, both almost entirely reliant on online advertising. How long before other anchor names decided to similarly cut back on their online ad spending? In short: slowly but surely, chronic buyers online advertising space, are slowly waking up to the fact that "adtech" may be one of the biggest hype (and hope) bubbles in history. Not all of it, but a material, substantial portion: one that may be responsible for a significant chunk of Google's or Facebook's cash flow and market cap.
A separate, if just as concerning problem emerged last month, when the WSJ reported that online ad giant, Google, would issue refunds to advertisers for ads bought through its platform that ran on sites with fake traffic, and generated no actionable advertising "clicks." Just how much of Google's ad revenue (and thus profits and market cap) had been inflated over the years by said "fake ads"?
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So fast forward to last week, when during Thursday's Global Retailing Conference organized by Goldman Sachs, Restoration Hardware delightfully colorful CEO, Gary Friedman, divulged the following striking anecdote about the company's online marketing strategy, and the state of online ad spending in general (courtesy of @parsimony16). What Friedman revealed - in brief - was the following: "we've found out that 98% of our business was coming from 22 words. So, wait, we're buying 3,200 words and 98% of the business is coming from 22 words. What are the 22 words? And they said, well, it's the word Restoration Hardware and the 21 ways to spell it wrong, okay?"
Stated simply, the vast, vast majority of online ad spending is wasted, chasing clicks that simply are not there.
Here is the full must read excerpt from the conference (full link here):
I'll share a little anecdote with you on this point.
We had our marketing meeting in the company several years ago and the online marketing team was pitching to double their budget, right, and at the time, say, look, nobody in the company is doubling their budget. But tell me why you believe that's the right thing to do. And they said, well, look, our customer acquisition cost and our ad cost is the lowest in the company. And I said, well, tell me about the data, show me how. And they said, well, people who click through the words that we buy on Google, the ad cost was lowest. And I said, how do you know that they're clicking on the word and going to the website because of the word you bought versus they saw a store or they received a source book? They said, oh, we know.
I said, well, how many words do you buy? They said 3,200. 3,200 words. I said, well, what are the top words? How are they ranked, the ranking of the words? Oh, we don't have that, right. And I was getting the look at like, oh, Gary is kind of one these old brick-and-mortar guys. He just doesn't get it.
And I said, well, what are the top 10 words? And they didn’t have the information. I said, why don't we cancel the meeting and come back next week when you have the data? I'm sure that Google sales representatives who are taking you to the expensive lunches and selling you the 3,200 words have that data. So why don't we get the data and then let, review the data?
And they came back the next week and we sat in a meeting and all of a sudden, I can tell you there's a little change in the faces. They had to wear it kind of down. Everybody kind of came in. I said, so what did we find out?
And they said, well, we've found out that 98% of our business was coming from 22 words. So, wait, we're buying 3,200 words and 98% of the business is coming from 22 words. What are the 22 words? And they said, well, it's the word Restoration Hardware and the 21 ways to spell it wrong, okay?
Immediately the next day, we cancelled all the words, including our own name. By the way, we are paying for the little shaded box above our words and said, oh no, we have to hang on to that because Pottery Barn might squat on top of us. I said, excuse me? I said, if someone goes to a mall or a shopping center and they're going to Restoration Hardware and there's a Pottery Bam there, they're already squatting, okay? It doesn't mean they're going to go into their store. If somebody wanted to buy a diamond from Tiffany and just because Zale's is sitting on top of them in a shaded box doesn't mean they're going to go to Zale's and buy a diamond.
I mean, I can't believe how many companies buy their own name and they're paying Google millions of dollars a year for their own name, like maybe if this is webcast, right, a lot of people are going to go, holy crap. They're going to look at their investments. They'd go, maybe we don't need to buy our own name. Google's market cap might go down...
One wonders how long before all retailers - most of whom are notoriously strapped for revenues and profits courtesy of Amazon - and other "power users" of online advertising, do a similar back of the envelope analysis, and find that they, like RH, are getting a bang for only 2% of their buck? What will happen to online ad spending then? And what will happen to the online ad giants, if the vast majority of ad spending that justified their hundreds of bilions in market cap is exposed as "bloat"? As Friedman politely, yet sarcastically put it, "Googles market cap might go down"...