Discrepancies: The Kraken of Interactive
Chances are, if you work on the advertising side of interactive, you have heard the word “discrepancy” thrown around with varying levels of frustration and bewilderment. The mysterious, maddening, material differences between a publisher’s and a third party’s impression counts are running people ragged on both the publisher and the agency side of the fence. In this opening entry for the IAB’s Interactive Incitement blog, I attempt to explain why I believe the Discrepancies issue is the most important business problem our industry faces, and what the IAB (and many courageous volunteers) are currently doing to resolve it. Maybe, by the end, you, too, will be spelling the word with a capital D in all your emails.
“Discrepancies” is the big, slimy creature of interactive. Like a Kraken—the legendary giant sea monster—it reaches its limbs into all corners of our industry, trying to squeeze the life out of us (or at the very least, driving us to distraction.) Thankfully, over the past year, the IAB and its Ad Operations Council has dedicated the resources and pulled together members, advertising agencies, and vendors to examine Discrepancies and rid our industry of this Kraken’s four main food sources:
Source 1: Data Double Entry, or “Lost in Translation”
Interactive, the most advanced medium in the history of media, has to manually enter campaign information twice in order to get it to run correctly online. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is what some people would call “the opposite of good.” While we can deliver an ad in milliseconds to an individual based on a hundred different criteria, every order that involves not just an agency but a third party ad-serving solution has a large amount of double entry at almost every step in the process. The RFP is entered on one end and the resulting publisher proposal is entered at the other; the insertion order (IO) is entered on both ends manually with different descriptions and system idiosyncrasies; revisions must happen manually on both ends after many emails and phone calls that may or may not get recorded and logged. Since both the agency and publisher systems must be synched to work correctly and both sides are manually entering data, it is unsurprising that crucial information frequently gets lost in translation.
Over the last nine months the IAB has been working with all parties in the interactive supply chain to develop e-business XML standards for the electronic transmission of RFPs, IOs, and Revisions. (I’ll talk about invoices later.) This will allow us finally to synch the systems in an automated fashion, and it may be our most effective weapon against Discrepancies’ most plentiful food source.
Source 2: Un-Audited Counting Systems and Processes, or “Different is Not Better”
Thanks to the efforts of George Ivie at the Media Rating Council (MRC) and independent media auditing firms, the vast number of non-rich-media display ads on the internet today are being served by ad-serving systems that have been strictly audited according to standardized impression guidelines. (See a list of audited companies here).
However, plenty of companies still use systems that may or may not be counting impressions correctly. Not every third-party ad-server has been audited. No rich media vendor has been audited - in their defense, IAB’s rich media guidelines are not due for release until the end of the year. That means the impressions coming out of these systems are being counted any which way they want to be (this should worry you). And while the hosted technologies that many publishers and agencies use have been audited, this only proves that if you put the wrong information in, the system will count the wrong information correctly. Agencies and publishers alike must submit to process audits because quality control in our world of double entry is inadequate. The IAB will soon release guidelines, created by experienced audit firms, for these process audits.
In this part of the business, different is not better, and until we get our processes under control and our systems are all counting in the same way, the pounding in your head that occurs every time you pull numbers from the third party systems will never go away. We all have to be honest with ourselves about this annoying audit thing, or we will never like what we see on that invoice.
Source 3: Late Creative, or “It Is a Big Deal!”
I have to state the obvious here, but when creative is late, it is a big honking deal, and it is time everybody stopped messing around. Inventory in interactive is so complicated I won’t be surprised when one of the bigger companies finally admits they are hiding supercomputers in their basements to manage the slicing, dicing, and forecasting that needs constantly to be done. Yet here again, when inventory is reserved and creative is late, changes are entered manually in both the publisher and agency systems. The IAB has developed a centralized, up-to-date Creative Specs Database and a Delivery Best Practices Process as part of our soon-to-be-released “On-Time Delivery Toolkit,” in the hope that we can cut off this energy-draining food source.
That is why I strongly suggest everybody get their creative in on time. Seriously, stop laughing. It’s not funny. It costs publishes a lot of money, and as everyone knows, costs always get passed on, until the client figures out that you’re making them the fall guy.
Source 4: Invoice Confusion, or “He is Us”
When an agency gets an invoice, it looks any which way the publisher wants it to look. I understand this firsthand because, as part of our e-business initiative, I collected our publishers’ invoices and tried to figure out what they were trying to say. To paraphrase a famous comic strip, I have seen the enemy and he is us.
Agencies are absolutely confounded by the kinds of information that is, and is not, printed on publisher invoices. This makes them easy to misread. As Dick Bennett, CEO of ImServices, a third-party verification service for interactive media properties, said to me the other day, non-standardized invoices create “discrepancies that aren’t discrepancies.” Unfortunately, it takes six months of emails, phone calls, and Tylenol to figure that out. The IAB will soon release an extremely important document called Billing Methods Best Practices. Within this sage tome, there lies a list of recommended data fields for all IOs and invoices. If this list could talk, it would say, “Hey, guess what, agencies match invoices to the original IOs so you should put all the IO information into the invoice.” Forget XML schemas for a second. Just put all the necessary information onto the paper invoice and things will get better.
Now that we have described our gruesome enemy’s food sources in colorful detail, let us discuss the reason why all of this matters. While we have seen that there are several painful sources of discrepancies, there is one thing more painful in our business than all that pain combined:
Discrepancies’ Spawn: Reconciliation, or “The End of Days”
I know. I know. The horror, the hair-pulling madness, the apocalyptic end- of-days that is Reconciliation. It is so awful that I don’t even want to write about it. I just want to ignore the whole thing and act as if it doesn’t exist. But we all know Reconciliation, the process by which agencies and publishers try to resolve discrepant numbers on invoices, cannot be ignored so we must meet its challenge with a stiff upper lip and preferably a team of employees who are gluttons for punishment. All is not lost, though. Besides clearing up invoice confusion, the IAB’s Billing Methods Best Practices document is meant to help both publishers and agencies mitigate the long, drawn-out process of reconciling discrepant number counts. Created by both publishers and agencies, the document preaches one main theme: Communicate. Do it clearly, do it often, do it proactively and everyone will get paid faster and have more time to think intellectually interesting things. Obviously the devil is in the details. But if you start thinking right now about how much better you could be at communicating on billing issues, your team could finally have that time to go on vacation.
I predict that Discrepancies will be a thing of the past in the not-so-distant future. The IAB and its Ad Ops Council, the MRC, auditing firms, and a group of brave agency volunteers have been working hard over the past year to move us closer to that reality and the industry should thank them profusely. But for us finally to best the beast that is Discrepancies, we, the publishers, vendors, and agencies of interactive, must make it a top priority and work together as partners. We will never be able to realize our full potential as an industry until the Kraken of Interactive is dead.