GroupM's plan to get ahead of ad fraud in China

By bringing key advertisers, publishers, third-party measurement vendors and industry self-regulators together, GroupM China is showing impatience with broader industry reform and wants to be seen as a leader on fighting fake traffic.

Patrick Xu
Patrick Xu

When Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard took a swipe at the media supply chain during the IAB annual leadership meeting earlier this year, he brought home the urgency for a collective effort by the industry to address the transparency issue.

Pritchard’s clarion call resonated across global markets and has been paid close attention in China. It is globally the second largest internet advertising market after the US by revenue and yet is still fraught with invalid traffic (IVT) and viewability issues.

As of now, none if few of the third-party measurement vendors in China is accredited by China Media Assessment Council (CMAC), a local version of the Media Rating Council set up just last year.

GroupM China, a founding member of CMAC, announced the launch of a brand-safety initiative last Friday that includes several leading advertisers, publishers, third-party measurement vendors, as well as CMAC itself to address issues including viewability, fraud and online contextual brand safety. All the parties involved agreed that tackling IVT, a problem rife in programmatic, should be their first priority.

In an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, Patrick Xu, CEO of GroupM China, said the initiative will “lock everybody in” to address IVT head on, certifying the measurement vendors involved through the CMAC and committing all parties to accept their measurements.  

GroupM China’s partners in its brand-safety initiative

  • Advertisers: L’Oréal, Nestlé, Mars, Wrigley, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover, Huawei, Honor, Shell Helix, GSK, Colgate, Darlie
  • Publishers: Tencent, iQiyi, Youku, Mango TV
  • Third-party measurement vendors: Miaozhen Systems, AdMaster, RTBAsia, Nielsen

“The certification (accreditation) process is (crucial) so that the technology that tracking vendors use is the right one, and they are following the recommended standards,” said Xu. “Without certification, the publishers do not feel comfortable…How can I trust your aggregation, data, measurement…”

He shared that a common problem faced by GroupM clients is publishers which are resistant to opening their platforms to tracking vendors, citing infrastructure challenges as their reason.

Calvin Chan, COO of AdMaster, however, disagreed, saying that his firm and its closest competitor Miaozhen Systems have been widely accepted by leading publishers such as Tencent, Youku Tudou and Sohu, despite the lack of CMAC accreditations.  

He pointed out that several measurement vendors have worked with the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) prior to CMAC. The Chinese chapter of MMA has also recently established a brand safety and viewability standard group with more than 30 members from major advertisers, publishers, trading desks and agencies, besides releasing the IVT and viewability measurement guidelines for mobile ads.

“CMAC accreditation is more about benchmarking of standards (for the industry), much like an ISO certification” said Chan. “Going forward, if more parties, such as agency trading desks and ad tech vendors were to go through this process, it will set off a big commitment for the whole industry to be aligned with IAB standards.” He said the entire process will “upgrade the food chain”, with advertisers demanding SIVT (sophisticated invalid traffic) measurement on top of GIVT (general invalid traffic) from their tracking vendors, for instance.

While having the fragmented industry in China adopt a global standard is ideal, Chan also stressed that it is equally crucial that the Chinese market should have its own tailor-made standards. “SDK [software development kit, used to integrate ad request APIs into applications] is a technology that is more common in China rather than the US, these are some of the few things that are uniquely Chinese,” he added.

First steps

CMAC is nascent and relatively limited in its resources and capabilities to ensure that its measurement standards are enforced. Tony Zhang, product marketing associate director from Gridsum, a Nasdaq-listed data analytics agency, said it will be a tall order for CMAC to have any significant influence over the state of the industry, despite its best intentions.

“IVT is an issue that has been manifesting in the industry over time," Zhang said. "It is hard to expect the problem to be eradicated through self-regulation or advocacy by a single body, the effect will be considerably slow.”

That's where GroupM has stepped in with another attempt to speed up the process, by bringing key brands, vendors and publishers together to start the process.  

Being a media investment operation, GroupM is in a position to lead the brand-safety initiative, said Xu. He insisted that the initiative is open and inclusive, and did not dismiss the possibility of working with competitors to move the industry forward. But by being seen as a leader on invalid traffic, GroupM is undoubtedly hoping to gain a commercial advantage as well.

“We’ve actually been introducing big clients to CMAC," said Xu. "We understand what exactly the clients need and we are communicating with the publishers. What GroupM does during the whole process is to get the brand owners and publishers to understand that this is something they eventually have to do.”

Xu believes that the agenda of the initiative is consistent with the timeline of the industry’s progression, and the outcome will lead to a meaningful commercial conversation. The joint initiative expects the accreditation process to be completed by the end of the fourth quarter, while it has set a target to release premium inventory in March next year.

“We tell our clients, let’s focus on IVT and make it our first priority," Xu said. "Once the momentum is there, we can move on to other agendas. After all the parties agree on a set criteria, then let’s talk about meaningful traffic…viewability, how we can help our clients track viewability.” He acknowledged that brand safety is less of a burning issue in the market, as the digital environment in China is already highly regulated.

Meanwhile, Ian Gao, head of data advertising products division at Miaozhen Systems, said it is incumbent upon GroupM as the middleman in the digital chain and the leader in the initiative to talk the talk and walk the walk.

“As a media buyer, GroupM must be transparent with its clients," Gao said. "It is also the first contact point for many brand owners and must play its role to educate its clients on issues such as IVT.”

He is nevertheless optimistic the initiative will make a positive impact.

“Brand safety is a complex issue that cannot be resolved without publishers opening up their data to scrutiny," Gao said. "We need participation from big brands to push for this accountability, but more than that, we need buying agencies such as GroupM to take the lead. The initiative puts all parties on the same page."

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