The Machine That Ran Off with Your Ad Budget

We dreaded this day. Some day, we knew deep down, our reliance on technology would be our undoing, whether it be when toasters became self-aware, waging mutiny in our kitchen, or when we’d drop our phone – and payment methods, every contact, and 2 years of family photos – in the lake.

Or, when we’d trust an adtech ecosystem with $60B in annual budget and discover most of it would go to middlemen, robots, and ad farms. In reality, this day came a while ago and, according to Jim Spanfeller, former CEO of, the problem is advertisers’ continued reliance on non-premium inventory (vendors of vendors) and third party data (…of vendors of vendors) to hit volume targets.

Brands have entrusted an overly complex network of vendors to deliver audiences, creating opacity to their data and limiting their ability to measure and respond. In the process, they’ve learned that the ecosystem leaves little in the way of working media budget, then it adds filler (non-human, non-viewable impressions) to achieve its numbers. It’s all a painful reminder of the importance of validation of results and vigilance with ad spend.

Spanfeller’s argument is that brands should invest more directly in premium inventory to ensure a truly valuable audience. Lost in the discussion is whether that audience is delivering a maximum return on ad spend. You will spend more and see a higher concentration of human, viewable impressions, but the higher costs are no guarantee that your ads will be seen by humans in the places and frequency that will generate the biggest business results for your brand (conversions, revenue, cost savings).

We can all agree that the system is broken. It’s too complex and self-serving. The answer isn’t to spend more to fix it. The answer is to be responsible with your budget, don’t expect your media provider to sell and validate their own results or provide 100% transparency, and make sure you set results expectations that you can independently verify and optimize towards.

Otherwise, you are putting a lot of trust in a machine designed to serve its own best interests.

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