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Facebook’s Ad Network Keeps Crashing, and Clients Are Fuming

Kurt Wagner

(Bloomberg) -- When David Herrmann co-founded a private Facebook group last March for advertisers on the social network, he thought it might provide a place for people to share thoughts on the industry and discuss best practices.

But in the past five months, the “Facebook & Instagram Pro Ad Buyers Industry Group” has taken on another purpose: Emotional support. Herrmann’s group has become a place to commiserate about the state of Facebook Ads Manager, the software system used to run advertising campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. Ads Manager is crashing with regularity, according to interviews with numerous advertisers. The outages, which can last for hours at a time and make it impossible to start a new ad campaign or manage an existing one, seem to happen every month, they say.

With almost 900 members, about 170 of whom joined in the last 30 days, Herrmann’s private group has grown quickly alongside Facebook Inc.’s technical stumbles. Screenshots from the group show frustrated advertisers seeking answers about error messages they receive, or sharing updates on bugs they’re waiting on Facebook to fix. One meme posted at the end of July was an image of a computer screen’s “loading” icon. “Facebook Ads Manager the past couple weeks,” the caption read.

To advertisers, though, it’s nothing to laugh about.

Herrmann runs his own agency called Herrmann Digital and manages $5 million to $8 million per year in Facebook ad budgets for clients. Now he’s considering whether those ads should go somewhere else.

“It used to be my go-to, and now I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to get today,’” Herrmann said.

Advertisers began noticing the system failures around Thanksgiving. As Black Friday approached -- arguably the most important single day for retail in the U.S. -- Facebook’s system for buying ads unexpectedly went down, making it impossible for some advertisers to set campaigns for their clients, or manage those already running in preparation for the holiday rush. Digital ad firms pulled their employees in on Thanksgiving Day to make up for time lost.

“The Black Friday [outage] was especially brutal,” said Pierson Krass, a managing partner at the marketing agency Lunar Solar Group, whose 10-person team on Facebook ads spent the holiday working.

Advertisers say Facebook’s ad system hasn’t been the same since.

Krass, who spends $3 million per month on Facebook and Instagram ads, estimates there have been at least a dozen system failures this year. Andrew Foxwell, co-founder of the marketing firm Foxwell Digital and Herrmann’s co-founder of the Facebook group, said the outages have ranged from hours at a time to full days. Herrmann described the issues as “constant” and said the system was down again for three to four hours last weekend.

A Facebook spokeswoman acknowledged the technical outages. “We recognize stability and reliability are critically important for the businesses who use our services around the world, and we apologize for the frustration these issues have caused,” she said in an email. “Over the years, we’ve invested in a wide range of processes and technologies to ensure that our infrastructure is resilient and highly available. We will continue to work on this and we’re committed to getting better.”

The social-media company has suffered from a number of software problems so far in 2019, including a handful of public consumer outages. In those cases, general users can’t get the app to load.

The Ads Manager failures, though, take place behind the scenes. When the system goes down, Facebook’s apps usually still work like normal, but advertisers can’t place new spots or access their campaigns. That’s a problem if you were planning to advertise around something timely, like a sporting event or a music festival. It can also lead to inefficient spending. If a certain ad isn’t performing well, for example, marketers will often pull it and replace it right away. When the system is down, poor performing ads can’t be stopped.

“This channel and these mediums -- they are meant to be managed actively,” said Krass. “If you wanted to just do a billboard and leave it somewhere and forget about it, you would do a billboard.”

Facebook hasn’t addressed the ad system failures in any substantive way, nor explained why they keep happening, advertisers say. Meghan Myszkowski, the head of North American social media advertising for Essence, said her team manages more than $300 million in digital ad spend per year and has noticed an “uptick” in technical problems since late last year. As a heavy spender, Myszkowski has a Facebook rep who usually checks in quickly whenever an outage occurs, but doesn’t offer much of an explanation. “The context or the reasoning why is typically never shared,” she said.

The most obvious solution for frustrated advertisers would be to leave Facebook and take their ad dollars elsewhere. Through all of Facebook’s struggles with issues including data privacy and election interference, its business hasn’t skipped a beat. The social giant brought in $16.6 billion in ad revenue last quarter, almost a 28% jump over the year prior.

Even if advertisers wanted to leave, Facebook’s size and targeting capabilities are virtually unmatched. Spending on digital advertising is expected to reach more than $333 billion in 2019, according to research firm EMarketer. Facebook will grab 20% of that market, second to Alphabet Inc.’s Google. Finding a suitable replacement is difficult.

Still, the ad system failures have spurred some smaller advertisers to make a change. Krass said 90% of the money he spent on digital ads a year ago went to Facebook, but now he has cut the amount to 65%. His budget is shifting to other sites like Pinterest and Snapchat.

“I really had no interest in doing other channels because [Facebook] was the best one,” he said. “Now I’m sitting here like, ‘geez, we really gotta diversify.’”

Herrmann, too, is considering a change.

“I don’t wanna be the guy complaining from the rooftop,” he said, “but this is my livelihood.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kurt Wagner in San Francisco at kwagner71@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jillian Ward at jward56@bloomberg.net, Andrew Pollack, Emily Biuso

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