It’s the Age of Google and Sorrell has no time – or money – for Twitter

April 29, 2013

Martin SorrellThe most interesting thing about WPP Group’s first quarter financial results were not the numbers, but its chief executive’s obiter dicta.

The numbers themselves were a curate’s egg. They beat the revenue forecast, bizarrely enough they delighted in Britain, but they disappointed in the United States. Which is just about the only part of the world economy currently showing signs of dynamism.

The obiter dicta, on the other hand, were curiously memorable. WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell used the occasion (well, near enough: he was actually speaking at the FT Digital Media Conference the previous day) to highlight a singular phenomenon. So far as his company is concerned (and it  is, after all, the number one spender of advertising money in the world), Google will soon become a bigger destination for his clients’ money than the biggest traditional media owner in his stable, News Corporation. Google is currently in receipt of $2bn of WPP’s quarterly spend; while NewsCorp gets about $2.5bn. But, given the Google figure represents a 25% increase year on year, it can only be a short time – Sorrell assures us – before the search giant moves into pole position.

I say “search giant”, but that of course is history. Sorrell’s underlying point is that Google – after some initial fumbling – has made the transition from a techie company, peopled by nerds, into a multi-media corporation with global reach. He calls it  “a five-legged stool”: there’s search (of course); display advertising; social media (google+); mobile (via Android and AdMob); and video through YouTube.

Note well where Sorrell places his chips, however. From an advertising point of view, the Age of Google (as he calls it) is primarily defined by video. YouTube has made big inroads into what traditionally would have been television viewing. He’s bullish about mobile, too: Android is now the most popular smartphone platform and in some developing markets, like China, it accounts for two-thirds of all mobile sales.

But social media: Oh dear, what an advertiser’s no-no! Yahoo, though generally lacklustre these days, garners about $400m of WPP spend. Facebook, infinitely more successful with its audience figures, receives only $270m. And Twitter a lot, lot less. What’s the logic? Well, Yahoo “gets” the commercial need for a five-legged strategy (indeed, TechCrunch speculates it is about to buy Dailymotion, a smaller competitor to YouTube). Whereas Facebook and Twitter do not. Facebook, Sorrell reckons, is important for brands – but in a negative sense – absence of criticism, which has little to do with any advertising content. Twitter, on the other hand, is simply a PR medium with almost no value to advertisers.

“It’s very effective word of mouth,” Sorrell told Harvard Business Review last month. “We did analyses of the Twitter feeds every day, and it’s very, very potent…I think because it’s limited in terms of number of characters, it reduces communication to superficialities and lacks depth.”

Maurice Levy, CEO of Publicis, speaks during the Reuters Global Media Summit in ParisThat last may sound a little harsh. And is certainly not a universally accepted view among admen. Significantly, it is not shared by Sorrell’s deadliest rival, Maurice Lévy – chief executive of Publicis Groupe. Lévy has just announced a four-year pact with Twitter which will involve PG’s media planning and buying arm Starcom MediaVest Group committing up to $600m of client money to monetizing Twitter’s audience. Details, at this point, are sketchy.  It is clear, however, we are not just talking “pop-ups” here. Lévy makes specific reference to video links and “new formats” yet to be developed. He admits to there being “some risk” involved in the project, though whether this relates to his own reputation, clients’ money or both is not apparent.


Who’s to blame for prostituting the integrity of the WSJ and TechCrunch? The internet

October 14, 2011

At first sight, there may not seem much connection between AOL’s recent dismissal of Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, and a spectacular scam at the Wall Street Journal, which this week brought down its European publisher Andrew Langhoff.

Don’t be deceived. There is every connection. Not in detail, but in principle. Both executives were fired because they had prostituted editorial integrity.

It’s fairly evident that neither deliberately set out to do so. Rather, they were attempting to apply imaginative (and increasingly desperate) commercial solutions to a problem endemic in the news information business. Namely, the pernicious effect of the internet – the ‘free news’ junkies’ hourly fix – on traditional advertising revenue.

Arrington had to go because his cavalier attitude to conflict of interest put him on a collision course with Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief at AOL – who was rightly concerned about the impact of his heretical gospel on the rest of AOL’s news assets (chiefly the Huffington Post).

Although TechCrunch, which AOL acquired for $30m last year, is a respected news source, as a free blog it was badly underfunded by the low-yield advertising which was the only traditional alternative to subscription revenue. Arrington’s solution was to set up CrunchFund, a venture capitalist fund specialising in new technology companies. Which aspiring tech company would not trade exclusive stories with TechCrunch in the hope of coming into contact with untold Wall Street riches? Investors, on the other hand, soon came to recognise TechCrunch for what it was: an invaluable source of investment-grade information.

The problem was what happened next. Should TechCrunch journalists, to all outward appearances acting without fear or favour, be obliged to soft-pedal any clients who signed up to Arrington’s fund? The new funding paradigm soon became a very old-fashioned conflict of interest.

The WSJ/Langhoff affair also breached journalistic ethics, but in a rather different way. Officially, Langhoff was fired because he had signed a deal with Dutch consulting firm Executive Learning Partnership which resulted in a series of special reports considered in breach of the WSJ’s ‘unimpeachable’ standards of editorial integrity. In fact, this was only the half of it, according to The Guardian. Apart from trading too much prominence and name-checking, Langhoff also seems to have struck an interesting side-deal with ELP’s sponsorship money (ie, advertising revenue). ELP was to channel money (including, at a later stage, some of the WSJ’s own money) into buying a large number of heavily discounted copies of the European edition of – the WSJ. This action is not illegal nor, strictly speaking, does it break the Audit Bureau of Circulations’ rules (Why not? we should ask indignantly). But it is designed to deceive. Inflated ABC figures give advertisers the impression that the WSJ is a stronger media vehicle than it actually is, which helps to harden rates.

While denying some of The Guardian’s more “malign interpretations”, News Corp – which owns the WSJ through Dow Jones – has nevertheless conceded that Langhoff had to go because he had allowed WSJ to enter into “a broad business agreement” which could “give the impression that news coverage can be influenced by commercial relationships.”

If respected operators like WSJ and TechCrunch are getting up to such tricks, where does the rot stop? The answer may not be very comforting for the integrity of news values in general.


Publicis’ sweetheart ad deal with Google turns sour after kickback allegations

November 25, 2010

When is an agency kickback not a kickback? When it’s a strategic partnership with Google – according to Kurt Unkel, senior vice-president at Publicis Groupe digital arm VivaKi.

Google and Vivaki have found themselves in the eye of a hurricane, thanks to an exposé published by the respected online journal TechCrunch. It sheds disturbing light on the highly incestuous relationship between the internet giant and agency group, with particular reference to their collaborative display advertising operations.

The technicalities are complex, jargon-ridden and difficult for outsiders to understand, involving as they do the secretive workings of so-called agency “trading desks” and “demand side platforms” (DSPs). But at heart the issue is simple. It’s exactly the same one aired in one of my recent posts on a historic kickback scandal at Grey Advertising. It’s about playing the agency client for a mug, possibly because the client in question is indifferent, but more likely because he or she hasn’t the first idea about what is going on. Or, as one anonymous Publicis employee quoted in the TechCrunch piece bluntly puts it: “Our clients are so clueless it is a joke.”

So how does the scam, if that’s what it is, actually work? Google is desperate to prove that it is not a one-trick pony, relying pretty exclusively on search advertising revenue. It has made considerable inroads into display, which now accounts for $2.5bn a year revenue according to the company itself. Some of this comes from its own sites, which include YouTube, but quite a lot is also generated via special units, the DSPs mentioned above, which are attached to all the big agency network groups – Omnicom, WPP and Interpublic as much as Publicis. According to one source quoted by TechCrunch, these DSPs already handle 10% of online ad spending but, such is their power, they could handle up to half in a few years’ time.

The issue is not whether money changes hands between Google and Publicis to boost Google’s market share. An explicit bribe would be illegal, not least because the financial inducement would not have been remitted to the ultimate paymaster, the advertising client. Rather, what seems to be going on are a series of non-monetary inducements offered by Google to improve agency performance. These, according to TechCrunch, include investment in the agency trading platform, co-marketing and training.

Google does not deny this is what is happening with Publicis. That in itself is serious enough, because it hints at abuse of market power, which could in time attract the attention of the competition regulator. In a nutshell, is Google using profit gained from its search operation to distort the display market?

But the implications are even more serious for Publicis, which depends on digital advertising revenue to sustain its industry-beating profit margins, of which we have been hearing so much from Groupe chief Maurice Lévy of late. According to a Publicis secret squirrel quoted in the piece, Publicis will run $1bn of advertising through Google this year, most search but about $200m display. To put this figure in context, digital was nearly 30% of Publicis’  Q3 €1.3bn revenues. And the rate at which digital revenues are growing – 28% in North America, which is the hub of global activity – is much higher than the industry average of 17%. Just to round off the point, there is an incestuous relationship between Google and VivaKi’s DSP technology: the technology is effectively licensed from Google.

If that’s the case, the not unreasonable question arises: are media planners at VivaKi acting in the best interests of clients when they allocate client funds, or the best interests of their employer?

I should point out at this stage that VivaKi does do business with display ad exchanges other than Google’s DoubleClick; for instance Yahoo’s Right Media. It also has a sweetheart display advertising deal with Microsoft, struck as a clinching quid pro quo during the Razorfish acquisition last year.

Nor does Google have an exclusive partnership with Publicis. It has a relationship with all the major advertising holding companies and a similarly structured deal to the Publicis one with Omnicom.

Whichever way you look at it, however, this exposé is a wake-up call for clients. Advertisers really need to pay a lot more attention to how their money is being spent.

POSTSCRIPT: Troubles, they say, always come in threes. To add to Publicis’ Google woes, there is a still-breaking corruption scandal in its China media buying operation, plus fresh news that Matthew Freud’s high profile PR subsidiary is plotting defection. For more information on this last, see what my old chum Stephen Foster has to say over at More About Advertising.


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