Patrick Harris, VP-global agency development at Facebook, sat in an exclusive interview with Communicate to discuss how the social media giant is adapting to these challenging times.
How did your system of agency partners develop?
[Early on] we hadn’t yet figured out the role the ecosystem would play, how Facebook would invest to make sure ecosystem players like large ad agencies were at the table. I spent much of my first few years at the company looking at how to expand our service model, help build capabilities and partner with agencies so they can be the best stewards of their clients and take advantage of this new channel and formats. Fast forward to 2019, we’ve built out significant infrastructure around the world to help educate our agency partners on how to take advantage of our tools and our platforms. We’re in roughly 30 markets. We have teams in Dublin, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Austin, Chicago, and Singapore, who also work with the large community of independent agencies. We’ve invested in a lot of tools to make it easier for them to do their jobs. We’ve also had agencies that have really informed our strategy. They have been at the forefront on thinking about how to really use and take advantage of what I would call new supply in the market. When we launch new things, like Instagram Stories, our agency partners tend to go in first, because they want to test and learn; they want to help show innovation to their clients; they want to take advantage of these new modes of consumption. Omnicom was our go-to-market partner when we launched ads in the US on Instagram for the first time. The framing that I use is: how can agencies help accelerate client success, and what can Facebook do to contribute to that? And on the other side, what can agencies do to help Facebook?
What about small agencies?
We aspire to be their number one growth driver on behalf of the clients that they serve. All of our clients have a simple challenge: they’re all looking for new ways to create new demand to take advantage of their supply sources and media, and they’re all looking for ways to sustainably grow their business. Facebook is still only a company of about 40,000 individuals and when you add up all the employee populations across just the big six agencies, but then also the thousands of agencies that we service through our scale hubs as well, there’s a tremendous amount of torque and leverage that we get in the market by enabling our partners to do the work that we can never do all by ourselves. Growing partnerships through agencies that end up having an advertiser impact is a much more scalable way for us to approach our own business.
How have the roles of various industry players changed?
There’s plenty of areas where it comes down to which partners you are going to trust to really be the custodians of your assets. The notion of being the custodian of the big idea used to be very clear: it was the big creative agency. Who was the custodian in terms of fiduciary responsibility and media allocation? It was the media agency. There’s a third component today: who is the custodian of data, whether its first-party data or aggregated data that you’re using for targeting? In these areas, all clients are searching for the set of partners that are going to help them not only drive their business, but do it in a way that’s going to meet consumers expectations, and be able to really understand how all of the platforms work independently and how they all work together. It’s important, because we’ve removed a lot of the friction that previously existed in terms of how people consume information, and how fast information is able to travel and be shared. So, there is more risk when maybe you don’t have the perfect messaging, or the creative assets don’t match the expectations of what a brand needs to get done. Finding the right partners that you trust to be the custodians of creative media and using the data as a resource in a really responsible way, is a journey that all clients are trying to figure out – and a lot of partners are trying to figure out as well,
How have you addressed Facebook’s recent issues around transparency and privacy?
The biggest change we made over the last year is this shift to transparency and control. It’s really manifest in two ways: the first is for the consumers, who are having much easier control about why they’re seeing this ad. We’ve just launched a product called Off-Facebook Activity that allows you to see what information has been collected about you in different parts of the Internet based on your browsing behavior and that might be used to help influence the targeting. The power to remove all this information so Facebook no longer has it, and to prevent Facebook from having this information in the future, is something we really want to give to people, so they feel comfortable. We’re taking the same approach about transparency. When you look at things like election integrity or issue-based ads, we made all of those ads very transparent. And we did that because, obviously, a lot of things have been written about what happened in 2016. The responsibility that we had going forward was to make sure not only that we could increase transparency, but also that we have the right guidelines and new rules of the road about what ads and what issues would be acceptable. We’ve taken a much more conservative approach to having more restrictions and more gatekeeping upfront.
How do you make sure, considering the amount of information in play, that you’re actually credible?
There are four key areas that we’re focused on right now. The first one is around harmful content. We need to work with academics, researchers, industry associations, advertisers, agencies… and say: ‘What are the new rules of the road going to be around harmful content and where do you draw the line, without violating free speech? What’s deemed to be harmful?’ We have some ideas on where it’s going to go, but we need to do some coalition building as well, with others in the industry.
The second one is around privacy and safety – and I think these two issues get conflated all the time. Privacy is about control, while security of data is a responsibility of any company that takes in any kind of consumer data. On the privacy side, we need to make explicitly clear to consumers and to advertisers what people are willing to share, and how we use that information to not only deliver better experiences to consumers but also to deliver better experiences for businesses so they can drive their ROI.
Number three is around things like election interference and making sure that we are as diligent as possible to stay ahead of adversaries who want to use big platforms to potentially polarize or move certain debates in one direction or another.
The last one is around data portability. How data is able to travel between different platforms and services makes things much easier. People are willing to share private information when they know it’s secure and when it’s helping their user experience. As a company, we need to make sure we’re giving people the power and control.
Do ad agencies have access to this kind of data?
The most common request that we get from agencies is external insights. They want to know two things. One is to, typically, validate whether or not the hypothesis they have about an audience and how they’re going to behave, is right. The other one is about the creative that’s going to be most appropriate once they validate that hypothesis. Being able to take very bespoke insights that help drive the right kind of targeting and the right kind of strategic communication plan, but then also allows you to develop the assets that we know give the campaign the biggest chance to deliver the business outcomes that the advertisers said is most important, is huge. One thing that we’ve had to do post Cambridge Analytica is that we’ve had to be much more restrictive in terms of the types of information that we’re going to expose through different APIs to a lot of our partners like agencies. This is a work in progress, because we know that information can be really powerful; but at the same time, we can’t trade that off.
How does an ad agency become a partner of Facebook?
There are all sorts of channels. Every year, we look at how to onboard more and more partners. There’s never been a better time to be an agency partner of Facebook and we see almost twice the number of partners today than we saw even three or four years ago. That’s because there’s a whole new ecosystem of agencies. A lot of them use our native tools interfaces to get their businesses up and running, and eventually reach out to make sure that they have the right points of contact at Facebook in order to service their business. One big portion of our business is managed service through people, but we’re also developing tools and resources. We recently launched a program called FMP for Agencies. It’s an agency hub with a wealth of information that’s just designed for agency audiences, but there’s also a chat feature built in. We call it Client Concierge. If you’re an agency and you’ve reached your budget limit, or your campaign is not up and running, rather than having to call or email a human being at Facebook, you can just go into the chat through the FMP for Agencies interface and get service and support. There’s lots of new ways in which we’re trying to enable agencies of all sizes and shapes and geographies. In addition, we’re also seeing a whole new ecosystem of creative partners that didn’t even exist a few years ago, while the big consulting firms are encroaching into the media & communications space. Over the last couple years, we’ve developed a small team that’s looking at what we need to be to partner with Accenture, Deloitte or BCG. We’re in a moment where the term agency is being redefined. We’re seeing all sorts of new agency models emerge, a lot more specialization in certain areas, and a requirement for more collaboration across the ecosystem. It’s incredibly exciting because the media landscape is getting more complex and clients are going to require partners that can help them simplify all the chaos.
What role does Facebook play in changing this landscape?
Historically, we’ve built platforms in order to connect people. The thing I love most about our mission and our vision is giving people the power to share, to build a community. This has reduced the amount of friction in terms of getting the information to the right people at the right time. Like any other major shifts in technology, whether it was the shift from radio to TV, from TV to Web 1.0, we vastly overestimate the impact of technology in the near term, and we vastly underestimate the impact of this technology in the longer term. As marketeers, that can sometimes be scary and daunting, but advertising is a real force for good in the world. We have 70 million active small businesses on the Facebook platform today. Seven million of those businesses are active monthly advertisers. Some of these businesses have grown from zero to hiring their first couple of employees or starting to sell direct to consumer. Economic opportunities have really arisen as a result of platforms like Facebook, creating more economic value and opportunity. Giving people the power, connecting people not only with their loved ones, but with the businesses and services that they care about as well, is a real force multiplier – especially for local economies.
The role of agencies has never been more important. It’s just that the capabilities, the competencies, the requirements and the expectations of clients have not only radically changed over the last couple of years but are going to radically change over the next two to five years. That’s going to create a whole new opportunity for agencies of all sizes. A lot of agencies are on this transformation journey of their own, and we want to be there with them. We sit in a unique position, with all of our partners, to be able to help companies do the things that are going to grow their businesses. It’s not about us disintermediating; it’s about us being there to facilitate and really help.