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The Great Attribution Illusion: A Marketer’s Modern-Day Haunting

Attribution in marketing is a specter that haunts the digital corridors with promises and pitfalls alike—a phantom stitched together by algorithms and assumptions. As we navigate this shadowy realm, six oracles of the industry offer their insights, sometimes biting, other times bemused, about the true nature of this elusive beast.

Judy Shapiro, CEO of engageSimply, casts a critical eye back to the predigital era, her words echoing like a ghost of marketing past. “Predigital, measuring marketing ROI [was] simple,” she says, recalling a time when P&G’s annual brand business reviews consisted of a mere “two-page review document with no attribution charts in sight.” Yet, as digital advertising swelled, so did the complexity of attribution, unleashing what Shapiro calls “the great attribution wars,” where models like first touch, last touch, and the enigmatic U and W series became weapons of choice, often “more confusing than insightful.”

Paul Knegten, the Adtech CMO of legend, delves deeper into this apparition. “The challenge with attribution is not cookies,” he suggests, dismissing the technical jargon. Instead, he turns to the human element, the “weird spongy organ” of the brain. He questions the very nature of consumer decisions with a provocative thought experiment: “Did I buy it because I searched for it, or did I search because I wanted to buy it?” This inquiry casts doubt on the linear narratives spun by attribution models, suggesting they may be mere illusions of causality.

Enter the Adtech God, deity of DSPs, who paints attribution as a puzzle with all pieces flipped down, a riddle wrapped in the enigma of cross-device behavior. “Dealing with cross-device tracking and data integration is no joke,” they proclaim, likening the task to corralling a drunken ensemble of friends, each using a different chat app, to plan a trip. The metaphor is biting—what are we really tracking in marketing, and what is simply the misfiring of disconnected data points?

Pesach Lattin, Publisher at ADOTAT, casts a long shadow on the history of attribution, tracing its roots back to the early 1900s. Yet, he brings to light the fallacies that plague modern digital attribution, informed by the insights of Les Binet. “The fallacy of immediacy,” “the fallacy of last-touch,” and “the fallacy of first-touch” are but a few of the ghost stories told to marketers. Binet’s wisdom is a stark warning against the “smoke and mirrors” that often conceal the true effectiveness of advertising.

Dave Morgan, Founder of Simulmedia, doesn’t mince words when he describes attribution as the “most important — and abused” element of digital advertising. He accuses the industry of peddling snake oil, selling an overhyped notion of attribution that’s bolstered by “fancy dashboards” and “fancy talk” rather than tangible results. He presents a sobering perspective: if we were to believe the attribution reports, we’d be convinced that marketing spend outstrips the Gross Domestic Product of nations.

Joe Zappa from Sharp Pen Media declares the death of the 360-degree view of the customer, a concept that has become “technically impossible” and widely unpalatable to privacy-seeking consumers. The shift toward probabilistic audience modeling and AI/ML, he notes, is more a resignation to the limitations of data than a step forward.

Jason Fairchild, Co-Founder and CEO of TVScientific, sees a glimmer of hope, a potential renaissance in TV attribution akin to applying Newton’s Third Law to advertising. Yet, one can’t help but wonder, given the disillusionment voiced by his peers, whether this renaissance will materialize or remain as intangible as the concept of attribution itself.

In this chiaroscuro of insights, attribution emerges not as a concrete pillar of marketing but as a will-o’-the-wisp, leading marketers through a quagmire of data and technology. The question looms large: Is attribution the solid ground of marketing strategy or merely a specter of our digital desires, a ghost in the machine of modern advertising?

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Pesach Lattin
Pesach Lattin
Pesach "Pace" Lattin is one of the top experts in interactive advertising, affiliate marketing. Pesach Lattin is known for his dedication to ethics in marketing, and focus on compliance and fraud in the industry, and has written numerous articles for publications from MediaPost, ClickZ, ADOTAS and his own blogs.

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