The rise and drawn-out fall of the adtech sector has been, in many ways, the biggest story of the last decade. It had all the beats of a now-familiar pattern; apparent technological solutions to age-old problems, endless pipelines of venture capital lucre and a business model built on sand. As the man in charge of the biggest advertiser in the world – Procter & Gamble and its $7bn-strong marketing budget – chief brand officer Marc Pritchard came to know the details of this tale rather well. It could be argued he’s done more than anyone to bring it to a close.
Few would have imagined that the digital advertising gold rush of the 2010s would lead to industry denunciations, marketing executives dedicating themselves to ever-tighter definitions of brand safety and an investigation by the feds. Despite whispers about accountability and transparency, in 2017 the money was still rolling in. Research from Luma Partners found mergers and acquisitions brought in $272bn that year.
Pritchard himself was heavily involved in P&G’s investment in this world. Having helped guide the conglomerate’s digital strategy for over two decades, he’d reportedly advocated an early move into the programmatic space using the Hawkeye system – a move, it was later reported, that left the company exposed to the ‘dark places’ of the web.
So his willingness to break cover and publicly pour doubt upon the entire sector’s premise came with plenty of weight. Speaking at the Internet Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting in Florida, he declared: “We’ve come to our senses and realized there is no sustainable advantage in a complicated, non-transparent, inefficient and fraudulent media supply chain.”
His diagnosis of the digital advertising supply chain as “murky at best, fraudulent at worst,” became a rallying point for critics of the industry and gained Procter & Gamble the moral high ground in the debate that followed. Following a wide-ranging review by fellow FMCG giant Unilever and ahead of GDPR’s adoption the year after, it was a pivotal moment. Trade headlines since have been dominated by scandal after brand safety scandal and newly aggressive legislators in Europe and California.
Pritchard’s role in all this has not merely been to call the industry’s bluff. He used the spotlight to kick off a huge efficiency drive, saving hundreds of millions of media dollars from P&G’s budget while imploring the rest of the industry to follow his lead in holding their media suppliers to higher transparency standards. In 2018, he used P&G’s clout to create an unprecedented in-house agency with talent drawn from across the industry. Its ‘people first’ model already picked up creative plaudits for the widely acclaimed ‘It’s a Tide Ad’ spot during that year’s Superbowl while providing a basis to “reinvent the agency model to get the absolute best creativity”.
And in 2019 he kept up the drumbeat on transparency and accountability, acknowledging the distance traveled while advocating for further progress. “Through the diligence of marketers, agencies, publishers, tech companies and leadership from the ANA and MRC, significant progress has been made on all fronts. We can feel good about that progress and the media waste we’ve eliminated,” he said in a speech to the Association of National Advertisers.
Pritchard can’t take credit for the entire avalanche – even Procter & Gamble can’t will FBI investigations into existence – but in sticking his head above the parapet, Pritchard has provided an important voice on the side of the angels.