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The Misguided Hype of Transparency

Here’s the column originally published in MediaPost today that looks for real meaning in one of the more overused buzzwords. It continues in the extended entry if you’re reading it here on the blog.

The Misguided Hype of Transparency

FROM THE VERY FIRST MOMENTS of last week’s Search Insider
Summit, the word "transparency" kept arising. I can’t say I saw it coming; the
only time a form of the word appeared on the agenda (which I wrote) was in the
description of the session on click fraud. It tended to arise in a different
context in the sessions compared to the hallways.

On stage, the discussion generally centered on technological
transparency. Consider its context in the click fraud debate. Every so often, a
cover story in a trade magazine, a lawsuit from a disgruntled marketer, or a
research study from a click fraud monitoring company reignites the click fraud
discussion. Of course, all eyes turn to Google, or more specifically to Shuman
Ghosemajumder, Google’s click fraud ambassador, so to speak. Shuman then updates
his slides that show how Google refunds marketers for more invalid clicks than
are likely fraudulent (I’m borrowing and simplifying his language for brevity’s

Each time Shuman updates his slides, Google gives him a little
more leeway than it previously did in sharing the company’s official standpoint,
metrics, and methodology. Shuman mentioned to me last month how Google keeps
giving him a longer leash, as the sensitivities of its executives adjust. You
can argue whether Google’s doing this for the greater good or its own
self-interest, though with the company’s market share and leverage, the two
overlap heavily. Ultimately, what’s clear is that the search giant is becoming
more transparent. This is great news for marketers, but it’s also evolutionary.
It was a matter of time, with forces propelling Google down a predetermined
path. It’s similar to how media’s evolution from town criers to the printing
press to television to the Internet has made politics, business, and other
disciplines become more transparent.

Transparency also came up during the sessions in reference to
Yahoo, but in a different way. Yahoo’s new advertising platform, by factoring in
ads’ performance, offers less transparency than when ads were ranked strictly by
bid price. Here, transparency is trumped by the greater good of relevance, which
is better for Yahoo and its users, and thus its marketers as well.

Bringing up transparency with Yahoo’s platform is like saying the
restaurant Daniel in New York City is less transparent than McDonald’s because
its chefs are hidden in the kitchen rather than flipping burgers in front of
you. What matters here to diners is that they’re getting a better meal at Daniel
or a cheaper meal at McDonald’s; transparency is a non-issue. Yet we keep
discussing questions like whether the loss of transparency hurts marketers. As a
panelist who was on stage when the question came up, I loved it — it’s an easy
question to answer, one that lends itself well to sound bites, and on stage you
never want to think too hard.

In the hallways, I heard marketers talking about transparency in a
very different context — in their relationships with agencies. I heard how a
deciding factor in the agency-selection process for one marketer was how
transparent the agency was during the review. Another marketer was overheard
saying that what he valued most about his agency was that each of them could say
anything to the other, and that the agency was always upfront and honest. At a
time when marketers are so willing to change agencies, and when agencies run the
risk of being commoditized (especially search marketing agencies), these
discussions of transparency are at the crux of building lasting relationships.

It’s a cliché that the real value of an event is more about the
hallway conversation than the talking heads on stage, but it’s rare to see such
night and day handling of the same topic in different contexts. On one hand, it
might feel good to pressure Google for more transparency or to pine for the days
of yore when Yahoo’s platform was more transparent. On the other, you’ve got a
major operational and cultural challenge for agencies to make themselves more
transparent in their structure, staffing, reporting, processes, values, and
every asset tangible and intangible that they deliver to their clients. It’s
little wonder that technological transparency gets more publicity.

To return to one of my favorite quotes referenced here previously,
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince, "L’essentiel est
invisible pour les yeux": "What’s important is invisible to the eyes" — or in
this case, the ears. It’s one more good reason to put down the BlackBerry during
the coffee break. You might miss someone telling you what could change the
course of your business.

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