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Restoring Confidence to the Supply Chain

Marketers need to have closer relationships with media owners and vendors so they can understand exactly where their budgets are going and the value each link in the supply chain provides, writes David Murphy.

Digital advertising experienced a serious erosion of trust in 2017. Brands were placed adjacent to unsavoury and salacious content on various platforms. Revenues were siphoned from advertisers and legitimate publishers thanks to domain spoofing, arbitrage and concealed tech fees. Most of these and other issues have plagued digital advertising for some time but the pivot to programmatic exposed larger proportions of media budgets to its vulnerabilities.  But do not despair. The fact is digital advertising has and continues to evolve at an accelerating pace. A rapid and constant change made possible thanks to a collection of very agile marketers, agencies, vendors and publishers. Collectively, we now need to be as nimble as ever in playing our respective roles to recover any lost confidence.

Marketers should have absolutely no tolerance for ad fraud, regardless of the low unit costs of some media buys. An acceptance that a proportion of budgets will be lost to shady practices means the problems are likely to be left unchecked. Ask challenging questions. Probe when you see something on a plan or report that doesn’t reconcile with your inner consumer. Set better, stronger, smarter KPIs that are less susceptible to being gamed or encourage an approach that has no emphasis on the environment or experience.

Agencies having a clear point of view, being able to provide meaningful insights and adequately educating clients on programmatic advertising is now more important than ever. Equally challenging questions need to be posed to your vendors, especially those that play a role in identifying fraudulent and invalid traffic. It’s ok to be skeptical. Proprietary intelligence, systems and methods are key to your business but some issues are best tackled by supporting common standards. Of particular relevance to this topic is Botlabs open source and unbiased Nameles.org. It’s a buy side solution to detecting invalid traffic which has garnered the support of WFA and is well worth investigating.

Premium publishers have really been suffering at the end of the murky supply chain and are a top target for fraudsters. Alarming findings in 2017 really shone a light on the key issues.  Domain spoofing- where a publisher, usually with purchased bot traffic, changes their identity when making their inventory available on exchanges- investigations revealed scores of exchanges offering inventory that wasn’t theirs. One such scheme was highlighted as stealing $5m in programmatic revenues per day from advertisers that was intended for other publishers. Publishers that tested programmatic buys on their own properties found that as much as 60% to 70% were going to middlemen and undisclosed tech fees in the supply chain. The problems are different but both are massively damaging to those of us that depend on advertising to help fund the creation of content and provide a trusted, uncluttered environment for brands to connect with consumers.

Much of this was allowed to happen when the increased emphasis on programmatic diminished the importance of relationships. A very concerning trend, as from our experience, collaboration with every stakeholder has always driven the most impressive results for our advertisers. This is especially true for our native advertising offering where advertisers and readers view it as an authentic, yet clearly identifiable, source of information and entertainment that communicates the brands desired message.

Legitimate publishers can play their part in supporting common standards and initiatives to help combat some issues. The geeky named yet incredibly important ads.txt initiative goes part of the way to help buyers avoid unauthorised sellers that are unscrupulously arbitraging our inventory or masquerading as our domains. The initial adoption rates by major publishers have been positive but programmatic buyers still need to beware. Only 26% of the most popular sites with Irish audiences have adopted ads.txt and there isn’t yet an equivalent solution for apps.

The programmatic supply chain wasn’t designed to be transparent. The promises of some blockchain based projects, such as Basic Attention Token, could address many of the issues as well as seriously disrupt the industry. It’ll be interesting to see how these solutions play out and if their promises are realised but until then, it’s essential for marketers to have closer relationships with media owners and vendors, understand exactly where their budgets are going and the value each link in the supply chain provides.

Savvy buyers that demand transparency is key to restoring and protecting confidence in digital. Short term financial and reputational impacts aside, I think 2017 was a positive year. Hopefully its one we can look back on where the majority of us were provoked to take action to ensure continued and sustainable growth of digital advertising.

David Murphy is Head of Digital Solutions with the Irish Times

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (IMJ January 2018)© to order back issues please call 016611660

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