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“Repair The Trust”: Randall Rothenberg addresses IAB Annual Leadership Meeting

“Repair The Trust”: Randall Rothenberg addresses IAB Annual Leadership Meeting
“Repair The Trust”: Randall Rothenberg addresses IAB Annual Leadership Meeting
“Repair The Trust”: Randall Rothenberg addresses IAB Annual Leadership Meeting

January 30, 2017

By Randall Rothenberg

Video of the full session at the 2017 IAB Annual Leadership Meeting:

Below is the full text from Randall Rothenberg’s address at the 2017 IAB Annual Leadership Meeting.

What we say here – what we do here – makes a difference.

It was at our first IAB Annual Leadership Meeting that our then-Board Chair, Wenda Harris Millard, made her famous pronouncement, “We must not trade our advertising inventory like pork bellies,” crystallizing a debate about media commoditization and value that rings through everything this industry does to this day.

It was at our sixth IAB ALM that a group of 60 industry executives, led by Dstillery’s Tom Phillips and John Battelle of Federated Media, gathered for an unplanned summit on fraudulent non-human traffic. These IAB members forced the industry for the first time to pay attention to the criminal corruption that had crept into the center of our distribution system. From that meeting came TAG, the Trustworthy Accountability Group, the industry-wide self-regulatory program for supply chain safety.

Last year, at our ninth Annual Leadership Meeting, I told you why “I hate the ad-block profiteers,” describing them as “an old-fashioned extortion racket.” I also explained how the industry bore responsibility for their rise, because we failed to put our users on a pedestal.

From that meeting came the Coalition for Better Advertising and its forthcoming standards for user experience based on the IAB LEAN principles. And from that meeting came as well unified industry action against ad-block profiteers that has rendered them toothless. Indeed, the threat of network-level ad-blocking has virtually disappeared, thanks to international IAB member action.

These and the many other challenges we have addressed at this gathering have one thing in common.

They represent the necessity of collective action across many companies in a complex industry – and across many parts of individual companies within our industry – to avert, relieve, or resolve problems before they become crises.

But even more fundamentally, these issues we have discussed, debated, and confronted at these leadership meetings represent the commitment of men and women in the digital media industry to act not just in their own self-interest, but on behalf of others, colleagues and competitors alike.

We repeatedly and continually have come together as a community to make this village we call digital advertising a better place.

I am very proud of the ways we, the IAB community, have united to craft meaningful remedies to industry challenges. When the Federal Government threatened to regulate us because they worried we could misuse consumers’ Web data, together we created the Digital Advertising Alliance and its groundbreaking Your AdChoices self-regulatory program to enable consumers’ control over their data. When digital video advertising delivery looked like it would veer into a chaotic jumble of competing standards, together we crafted the IAB VAST specification for serving video ads consistently to different digital players. When digital immigrants started flooding into our sales forces from other media, we created and you backed the IAB training and certification program. That program has graduated more than 10,000 digital sellers and 7,000 certificants in the past four years.

I am invoking our history of consensus problem-solving because today, at our 10th IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, we face a challenge that has boiled over into crisis, perhaps the greatest crisis it is possible to face. For it is a crisis not of our industry, not of our digital media and marketing village, but a crisis of society writ large.

Our industry is at the center of an epochal change in the ways citizens perceive and participate in the world around them.

Much of what the IAB community has done is undeniably beneficial. We have given voice to the voiceless, enabled people to pursue passions across borders, helped young men and women to cure sometimes crippling social isolation by allowing them to find others just like themselves, a town or a world away. Out of bits and bytes, billions of dollars of value and millions of jobs have been created, flowing from boomtowns like Palo Alto and Seattle into mom and pop enterprises in small hamlets on every continent. The technology we steward has given the powerless access to tools, the curious a route to knowledge, the friendless a path to love.

Of this we should be proud.

But we cannot deny that some of what we have brought into existence has had dire consequences. We know that networks we operate can be used to distribute stolen content, depriving the creators of journalism  and entertainment of their ability to earn a living. We have learned that a set of technologies meant to decentralize information distribution can, in fact, be used by institutions to centralize and block access to news. We have discovered that the same paths the curious can trek to satisfy their hunger for knowledge can also be littered deliberately with ripe falsehoods, ready to be plucked by – and to poison – the guileless.

We have confronted the terrifying realization that facts and truth – and the time-honored processes for establishing them – can be turned into relativistic commodities, undermining the will of our citizenry and the ability of our leaders to make the world a better place.

As an industry, it is our obligation to again step up. But this time, our goal cannot be merely to fix our supply chain. Our objective isn’t to preserve marketing and advertising. When all information becomes suspect – when it’s not just an ad impression that may be fraudulent, but the data, news, and science  that undergird society itself – then we must take civic responsibility for our effect on the world.

I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking, “Whoa, Randall, I did not sign up for that!” You’re thinking that your obligation, the obligation that brought you here to the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Hollywood, Florida, is simply and straightforwardly to help your company. You came here to buy and sell, and to learn about new products and services that might improve your business. You came here to glean essential tidbits of news and gossip that might give you a leg up in your next client call.

You’re not shirking your larger responsibilities – to your family, and to the town and country in which you live. But you’re thinking those are your private matters, and they don’t intersect with your business obligations. That’s what you may well be thinking.

In the brief time I have, I hope to explain, however imperfectly, why your business obligations do intersect with your broader obligations as citizens. And I also hope to provide some small principles that may help you navigate the terrain between your professional responsibility and your civic responsibility.

First, let me dispense with the fantasy that your obligation to your company stops at the door of your company. For any enterprise that has both customers and suppliers – which is to say, every enterprise – is a part of a supply chain. And in any supply chain, especially one as complex as ours in the digital media industry, everything is interdependent – everything touches something else, which touches someone else, which eventually touches everyone else.

No matter how technical your company, no matter how abstruse your particular position and the skill it takes to occupy it, you cannot divorce what you do from its effects on the human beings who lie, inevitably, at the end of this industry’s supply chain. What I’m saying is: There’s really no such thing as a “B2B problem” any more. Everything is “B2C.” Everything we do ends up touching men, women, and children.

Look at this concretely. In our industry, as in many others, technologists and engineers are designing and building things that sales people sell to buyers. In our industry, these technology products and processes range across disciplines. They include new ad formats; new multimedia concepts; new ways of identifying audiences; new methods for measurement; new kinds of analytics; new ways to bid or otherwise transact.

But no matter what they are, these products and services always, by definition, influence the distribution of content – for the Internet exists to move content, whether it’s a mote of data or a four-gigabyte movie, from servers to a requesting client.

So directly or indirectly, the engineers and the sellers and the buyers are influencing what content creators are able to create, which in turn affects what human beings are able to see, read, hear, and understand.  They are, you are, also determining the things human beings give back into that chain – data about their activities, interests, beliefs, hopes, and desires.

This feedback loop, in turn, affects not just the types of marketing communications that can be deployed to shape consumer attitudes and behaviors – it determines the actual goods and services that get produced, from music to detergent to short-term home rentals.

In this very truncated Butterfly Effect, the line of code written by a junior programmer in a mobile advertising startup in Cupertino is determining the length of future novels, the attention span of future consumers, and the cultural heritage of a generation of kids coming of age in a village in rural India.

In other words, there is no such thing as a neutral technology. Everything has consequences.

You will not be able to predict most of those consequences. And you certainly should not be held accountable for all of them. But you have no choice but to accept that what you do matters. By engineering something, by selling it, by buying it, by deploying it, by working with it, each of us, in some small way, is responsible for it, and for every human and every human institution that depends on it.

As the story of Genesis reminds us, in business as in life, you are your brother’s keeper.

This leads to the second reason your business obligations overlap your civic responsibility.

Citizenship enabled through industry is as old as the American experiment – older. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, the nation-state is not the only community in which, historically, we see ourselves as citizens. We also consider ourselves citizens of “local geographical communities, organizations, movements, loosely-defined groups, or even the world as a whole.” All these communities are paving stones to progress, leading us toward a society that improves the lives of its people. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men of virtuous character acting in and through justly administered institutions will stabilize and perpetuate the good society.”

But, Mill added, “…[I]f the agents, or those who choose the agents, or those to whom the agents are responsible, or the lookers-on whose opinion ought to influence and check all these, are mere masses of ignorance, stupidity, and baleful prejudice, every operation of government will go wrong.”

If this is sounding like far too much responsibility for any individual – let alone an individual sales leader, or ad operations leader, or agency buyer, or CMO, with your 24/7 jobs – take heart: trade associations like IAB exist to advance the interests of the good society on your behalf. Three hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that among the unique features of the infant United States was “the immense assemblage of associations in that country.”

By Tocqueville’s calculation, these associations were absolutely necessary. “Among democratic nations,” he wrote, “…all the citizens are independent and feeble. They can do hardly anything by themselves… They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another…

“If they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered…,” Tocqueville wrote, “[and] would soon relapse into barbarism.”

That “relapse into barbarism” is known more commonly as “the tragedy of the commons.” First advanced by an English economist in 1833, the tragedy of the commons argues that in any interdependent ecosystem, if the participants act solely in their own self-interest, they ultimately will deplete the shared resources on which all depend, eventually leading to everyone’s own degradation and demise.

Our commons is the digital marketing and media supply chain. It is the grazing land on which we all feed, the Central Park that invigorates our spirits, the town square we depend on for our news, the Main Street to which we travel to do business with each other. Without it, we are nothing – nothing as an industry, nothing as a people.

So we have the requirement to act, and through our collaboration with each other, via associations like the IAB, we have the means to act. Which brings me to fake news.

There’s a linear connection between fake news and those trolls of digital marketing and media: click fraud, fraudulent non-human traffic, consumer data breaches, privacy violations, and the sources of ad-blocking. Each represents the failure of our supply chain – the same kind of supply chain failure we at IAB and our members have dealt with repeatedly and successfully over the years.

And fake news carries the same cost to your company that these other supply chain failures carry; it reminds our customers that there’s something untrustworthy, even unsavory, in all this complexity in which we traffic.

But fake news is much more than a supply chain failure. It represents a moral failure, as well – one that implicates marketers, agencies, publishers, platforms, and technology companies alike.

Consider the dissection of fake news reported last week by Scott Shane of The New York Times, in his brilliant article, “From Headline to Photograph, a Fake News Masterpiece.”

Shane details how a 23-year-old recent college graduate in Maryland manufactured an entirely false story about the discovery of “tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in [an] Ohio warehouse,” and how that story influenced perhaps millions of voters around the country.

Everything in the story of the so-called “fraudulent…votes” was a lie, made up out of whole cloth by a former fraternity leader and college quarterback named Cameron Harris. He made up the Columbus, Ohio-area electrical worker who allegedly found the fraudulent ballots. From a Google image search, he found a photograph of a man in a warehouse to illustrate the story. No matter that the photo was from Birmingham, England. He falsely captioned it as evidence of the shocking Ohio discovery.

Harris published his tall tale on ChristianTimesNewspaper.com, a fake news site whose URL he had purchased for $5. Within a few days, the entirely made-up story was shared with 6 million people, via Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. Mr. Harris made $5,000 in advertising revenue from the fabricated story. He calculated that, for his labor, the fake piece on the fake site about the fake ballots earned him about $1,000 an hour.

Three years ago, in my address to this convention, I addressed this sort of supply chain failure – specifically in the context of digital ad fraud. “What would happen,” I asked, “if any rubber manufacturer anywhere, no matter how new or unqualified, could, at will, inject its tires onto the assembly line on which Chrysler makes its cars? Almost immediately, the result would be a lot of dead and injured motorists, as defective tires start shredding and blowing up on the world’s highways.

“An analogous scenario threatens the Internet,” I said then. “The supply chain by which digital advertising is created, delivered, measured, and optimized is so porous and perilous that it jeopardizes consumer trust and business growth.”

Fake news represents this exact form of supply chain failure. As the  child of clickbait and the grandson of the direct-mail scams pioneered in the 1920s, fake news also is another form of the hucksterism with which the ad industry has been associated since its origins in the 19th Century. The shocking headlines! The wild overpromise and underdelivery. The Barnumesque mendacity.

But it’s much worse than that. Because the object of hucksterism is to fool you into buying something. From that, you will recover. The object of fake news is to fool you into cynicism, mistrust, and even hatred. From that, our society cannot recover.

As leaders of our ecosystem – as senior executives in brands, agencies, tech companies, platforms, and publishers – you have a responsibility to keep our commons safe, secure, and flourishing.

If you do not seek to address fake news and the systems, processes, technologies, transactions, and relationships that allow it to flourish, then you are consciously abdicating responsibility for its outcome – the depletion of the truth and trust that undergird democratic capitalism.

There is no one culprit in this ugly scenario. All of us in this room play a role: the marketers pressing for billions of additional impressions at unsustainably low prices; the agencies pressuring the publishers for more and more free “added values”; the publishers so desperate for revenue that they run ads disguised as news and source “audience extensions” on unsavory sites; the tech companies whose algorithms drive consumers to deceitful  content; the journalists who complain but remain in their silos, unwilling to understand, let alone participate in correcting, their industry.

To all of them – to all of you – to all of us, I say: You wouldn’t want your daughter to ride in a car made with faulty tires. You wouldn’t want your son to breakfast on a cereal sourced from bacteria-riddled grains. Then you shouldn’t abet the creation, distribution, or monetization of untruthful, dangerous falsehoods to other people’s’ sons and daughters.

And you should stop it now.

As I said earlier, few of you bear responsibility before the fact. After all, it’s impossible to anticipate unanticipated consequences. But all of us bear responsibility to our community once a potential or actual crisis, like fake news, is identified.

A few weeks ago, on January 4, I celebrated my 10th anniversary as CEO of the IAB. I have premised my leadership on a simple piece of advice I got from Tim Armstrong, when he was the sales leader at Google, and who was helping to recruit me for this job. “Focus on thought leadership,” Tim told me a decade ago. “Because thought leadership is the magnet that will get people in the room, and once you’ve got them in the room, you can coalesce them into doing the right things for the industry.”

It’s the best leadership advice I ever got. We forged partnerships with our sister trade organizations the 4As and the ANA to fight together on behalf of transparent metrics, consumer privacy, self-regulation, and better advertising. More recently, we at IAB put together a coalition of almost a dozen associations to work together to build a more robust infrastructure for cross-screen digital video ad delivery.

And we’re going to create more rooms, to bring more people in, so we can amalgamate an even larger coalition to solve some of our most persistent problems. Former CBS News President Andrew Heyward, one of the most lauded executives in modern television journalism, who so ably led our Town Hall on technology and civic responsibility last night, will be working with IAB to bring together journalism leaders and other content leaders into the kind of open industry dialogues we need to address the crisis of fake news.

But here you are, now, in this room. I promised to offer some small principles that might guide you to beneficial actions. Here are two:

First, comply with industry standards. This every-man-woman-and-company for itself nonsense that increasingly has dominated our digital media business relationships is the purest example of the “tragedy of the commons” I’ve ever seen. As Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard said last night, it has placed a “creativity tax” and an “ROI tax” on everything we as an industry do.  It sucks up staff time and our customers’ money into endless disputes over existential theories, methodologies, and even observable facts.

Worse, non-compliance with industry standards has put us on the slippery slope to relativism that leads directly to fake news, industry mistrust, and social degradation. You don’t like the standards? You think there can be better standards? Fine. Then join the IAB, the IAB Tech Lab, and the MRC and campaign for better standards. But opt out of that, and you are opting out of transparency, truth, and trust.

Second, get yourself out of the fake anything business.

This is not difficult. Simply ask your finance department to create a list of all your customer payables. Then commission a team to review the list to determine who your customers actually are, and what they do for a living. If they’re engaged in child porn or distributing pirated movies or generating neo-Nazi propaganda, or anything else you wouldn’t want your parents, spouses, neighbors, or children to know about, then stop doing business with them.

And once you’ve reviewed and cleared your customers, do the same thing with your suppliers.

This is not a vain exercise.

Three weeks ago, I received a concerned citizen, who asked if I was aware of the cyber-terrorism being visited on the Jewish community of Whitefish, Montana.

Indeed, from news reports, I was well aware. The web site Dailystormer.com had announced plans for a neo-Nazi march through town on Martin Luther King Day, its founder declaring, “Jews have operated with impunity for decades, destroying the lives of anyone who dared question their international criminal cartel. Those days are finished.”

What did this have to do with IAB? The concerned citizen who wrote me, whose identity I’d like to protect, contacted me because he’d discovered (by clicking around) that an ad network was involved in serving ads to The Daily Stormer’s web site.  He was unable to get anyone in the company to return his calls, but saw on their site that they were an IAB member. So he was contacting me for help in getting them to stop financing the Nazi hate site.

The ads served by the IAB member network did come down – not through our intervention, but apparently through the intervention of another partner the concerned citizen contacted. That’s good news. But it also shows that any company sitting in this room has the ability to police itself and to actively banish fakery, fraudulence, criminality, and hatred from its midst – and it is your obligation to do so.

Don’t tell me that it’s difficult. Don’t tell me that it will take a lot of time. Don’t tell me that it’s too complex to resolve quickly. In a multidimensional industry that can invest untold billions on driverless cars, Mars missions, Super Bowl ads, next season’s prime-time lineup, and the acquisition of hot programmatic startups, surely we can fix fake news first.

And once we’re done with that, let’s rise to Marc Pritchard’s challenge. Let’s fix, once and for all, ad fraud, opaque metrics, and the other ills that sully our industry, and diminish our ability to make good on the promise of the digital revolution.

That promise is liberation from ignorance. That promise is the opportunity to create great art and distribute it widely. That promise is to build businesses that endure, because they can reach the right people, at the right time, with the right messages, about the right products and services.

Let’s repair our town square, let’s mend our commons, before we invest in moon shots.  In fact, let’s make fixing the digital marketing-media supply chain our moon shot.

As I said in the beginning, I am proud of IAB members’ willingness to band together to find common cause and improve our industry. From the Digital Advertising Alliance to “Making Measurement Make Sense,” from TAG to the Coalition for Better Advertising, digital media and technology companies have continually shown their willingness to build a better ecosystem.

But now I am asking you to reach higher, and deeper into your own better nature. The values we hold dear – diversity, freedom of speech and religion, freedom of enterprise – are under assault, and digital marketing, advertising, media, and technology companies bear some measure of responsibility. The route from self-interested “standards” to fraudulent ads to blind-eyed negligence to the financing of criminal activities to support for hatred is clear, and it is direct.

What we say here – and what we do here – makes a difference. Please leave this conference with this understanding: You have the power to move fast and fix things. You have the ability to repair our credibility. You have the power to rebuild the trust. Thank you.

Read the Press Release  View Full Video

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