The Internet Advertising Bureau’s Performance Marketing Council is a stalwart feature in the UK performance marketing landscape.

It is the industry’s chief forum, and has been lauded by proponents for driving what was once a ‘niche’ area of digital advertising onto an increasingly mainstream stage.

Without it – some worry – affiliate would still be on the ‘fringes’ of digital marketing.  

Many supporters of the IAB focus on its contribution to affiliate’s development and legitimacy; striving for adherence to best practices and self-regulation. Few can deny that ensuring its members are involved in current discussions and debates around industry challenges – both local to affiliate marketing and with broader application – has added crucial weight to the industry’s perception among new investors.

Its necessity is backed by PerformanceIN research finding nearly two thirds (64.5%) of its readers responded positively when asked if the IAB was vital to the sector’s development; over a quarter (26.7%) replied “definitely”, while over a third (37.8%) responded “to a reasonable degree”. The need for a ‘responsible watchdog’ to oversee industry standards, the unification of the industry and its broader visibility to a wider audience, were among cited justifications.

Those who opt-in for IAB membership, and there are many, gain a ‘seat at the table’, which earns them the right to help make and shape industry rules, as well as potentially influencing external regulation.

Additional perks include access to a raft of online resources – original research, policy briefings, whitepapers – as well as publishing rights on the site and the ability to reach the IAB’s entire catalogue of members.

But no different to every other facet of the advertising industry; benefits come at a cost.

Addressing departures

According to the IAB UK’s senior programmes manager, Clare O’Brien, membership fees equate to “less than 1%” of a company’s annual revenue. It sounds minimal, but to a global performance marketing company generating around £130 million annually, even a 0.5 – 1% proportion of UK-based revenue solely could present a hefty figure.

Marketers familiar with the annual revenue of major affiliate networks may recognise the nod to Tradedoubler here, whose recent departure raised eyebrows from competitors within its arena.  

Asked about its exit, Tradedoubler simply responded: “After reviewing our investments in industry bodies, Tradedoubler took the commercial decision not to renew its membership of the IAB in 2016.”

While the IAB and Performance Marketing Council are created with the end goal of driving revenue for the industry as a whole, those who feel they are not drawing enough return individually from membership will, on occasion, choose to invest elsewhere. It’s a cold, hard fact of business; companies must constantly analyse where investment should be made, and where it should be cut, and this point is especially resonant in an industry that holds efficiency and measurement as core foundations.

However, part of the concerns expressed over Tradedoubler’s recent action lay in that its exit might infer that the network is no longer obliged to follow a set of long-worked guidelines.

Completing its brief statement, the company added: “We’re still fully committed to upholding the codes of conduct, standards and best practice guides that we have worked with the IAB to establish.”

Affiliate Window’s global client strategy director, Kevin Edwards, cites no reason to doubt this.

“I’d say just because some networks choose not to be members doesn’t mean they automatically stop adhering to or following the codes of conduct and best practice guidelines.

“Why would you when they represent a commonly understood standard? I’ve seen the voucher code of conduct, for example, referenced in the terms and conditions of programmes on the Webgains network – a company that isn’t a member of the IAB.”

Cultivating return

If the departure of a major affiliate network has done anything to the broader affiliate marketing industry (and that’s arguably very little), it has raised a worthy talking point around what its current members are doing proactively to justify their investment in the IAB and its Performance Marketing Council.

Conversations around its exit have been flanked by murmurings of existing members becoming “less engaged”. The premise that has revealed and established itself within the past few weeks is that a solely financial investment into the IAB doesn’t necessarily equate to an immediate return.

Of course, this is not unknown to the IAB either. Last year the trade body’s own UK CEO, Guy Phillipson, called for members to “stop complaining from the sidelines” in a campaign designed to re-engage existing members, specifically to help tackle issues facing the online advertising industry – including brand safety, viewability, fraud, ad blocking and privacy.

“Even when the IAB was free to attend, the level of contribution from people was generally pretty miserable,” says Edwards, who himself was a former chair of what the IAB previously called the Affiliate Marketing Council.

While charging for membership provides IAB members with “obvious benefits”, Edwards believes that taking away a membership fee would have little overall impact on the participation of current members.

“People are happy to passively take advantage of the service but don’t want to commit the resource. This will always be the case whether there is a charge or not,” he adds.  

Affilinet’s UK managing director, Helen Southgate, is herself a former chair of the Performance Marketing Council and a staunch advocate of the IAB. Southgate believes the trade body has legacy value to both her employer and the affiliate marketing industry. As a result, a familiarity with the IAB and its workings is embedded into the culture and development of affilinet and its staff.

“When I feel there is a key subject matter which may need some senior decision-making, I will ensure I am there or when there is an important topic being discussed that affects our business,” says Southgate.

Otherwise, it is her team that is tasked with responsibilities within the Performance Marketing Council.

“I think it’s important that they, the new generation, lead.”

It’s a perspective almost identical to that of Edwards, who claims Affiliate Window is another affiliate network taking the responsibility of educating its team about the IAB “seriously”.

“All new starters at Affiliate Window are told about the IAB; staff are encouraged to attend their numerous conferences and seminars and the Affiliate Window interface was designed with IAB standards in mind – the only network to do so.”

Edwards goes on to note that the Performance Marketing Council is often held up as a “gold standard” that other countries are “keen to emulate”.

While these two cases can be taken as examples of active participation, it comes down to the direction of a company and its overall objectives to decide whether membership to the IAB is a worthy investment, but the argument that each member will gain in return what they put in, beyond a financial investment, is a basic but powerful one.

As a voluntary body, however, whose members can be vocal about its benefits, it seems unjust that companies who choose to invest their resources elsewhere should have their overall commitment to the industry’s development and innovation brought into question – whether or not they are doing this as part of a group, or under their own steam.

Another idea worth entertaining is that members might choose to leave a trade body which has helped establish a booming industry; this being symptomatic of an ever-maturing and increasingly-recognised space, and one that no longer needs so much to fight its corner.