Attila Jakab
Sep 21, 2017

An embargo on programmatic spells disaster for trade

Rather than severely limiting programmatic spend through extreme whitelisting, the industry needs to look at how measurement strategies are contributing to media quality concerns.

A beacon erected to monitor shipping during Japan's sakoku period (Source: User Paipateroma, Wikimedia Commons).
A beacon erected to monitor shipping during Japan's sakoku period (Source: User Paipateroma, Wikimedia Commons).

It’s hardly surprising that advertisers are growing cautious over the threats to digital advertising. New research from the World Federation of Advertisers revealed that 70 percent of advertisers believe concerns over brand safety have escalated over the last 12 months, with viewability (57 percent) and ad fraud (54 percent) also highlighted by those surveyed. All are, without question, serious problems for the industry to tackle.

Some have taken a heavy approach to mitigating risk through extreme whitelisting, the process of limiting programmatic spend to a very select list of trusted, ‘premium’ publishers. On the face of it, this may seem like common sense. But, it’s actually dramatically damaging campaign performance by significantly reducing audience volume.

It’s similar to the old practice of sakoku: Japan’s trade practices in the 17th century. These laws restricted trade to a very limited number of merchants and countries in order to keep Japan safe from foreign influence. However, this isolationist policy resulted in stagnation rather than prosperity. Japan’s goods and services were unable to reach their potential global audience, and the economy suffered as a result.

Rather than hiding behind whitelisting embargoes, advertisers and agencies need to take a long, hard look at how they’re measuring success if they’re to get true media quality peace of mind.

Our obsession with post-impression

Measuring post-impression should be a relic of the advertising past, yet it still dominates current thinking. Under pressure from clients to create brilliant results with tight budgets, media agencies found that buying low-quality inventory pushed up their cost per action values. With the focus on volume over value, they can easily buy cheap inventory to reach as many users as possible and claim credit for any conversions, even if the user never saw an advert.

But just as advertisers exploited these trends, so too did the fraudsters, tempted by the money available through online ads. The growth of the Internet also made it nigh on impossible to check every page for its content before publishing, and so brand safety has become increasingly complex. Couple this with the challenge in making adverts as viewable as possible, and it’s easy to see why the pot is at boiling point.

Transparency and brand-safety concerns are symptomatic of how advertisers have treated the online market for years. Despite our efforts to fight the perils of ad fraud, brand safety and viewability, we’re chained down to the metrics of old and struggling to survive. We need to be frank; the post-impression system isn’t fit for purpose, and it’s time to act.

Revenue focused measurement for the modern age

What we need is a more fundamental shift, one that focuses on incrementality instead. This offers advertisers and agencies the chance to see the real impact of their campaigns. Rather than just looking at the advert which prompted a click, or the last one delivered before a conversion, this measures how much incremental value a campaign drove—that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Ignoring results from unviewed impressions will offer a more realistic overview of your campaign’s true value, focusing instead on incrementality.

This drive for incremental measurement also plays a role in the wider media quality debate. It incentivises media buyers to purchase the best quality inventory; they know which viewable impressions generate conversions, and can optimise their campaigns to purchase more. In fact, incrementality minimises ad fraud often associated with low-quality pages, creating better results for brands. However, many traditional media agencies will find the shift to incrementality tough because they don’t have the right technology or skills to do so.

Part and parcel of layered security

As discussed in our recent whitepaper, advertisers must demand that their agencies and partners are open and transparent, ensuring that they have full visibility on any and all data. These companies should also have the right capabilities to ensure their multi-layered approach minimises the risks.

In the fight against ad fraud, for example, use pre-bid filters as your first layer of defence, rather than post-bid. This prevents SSPs and exchanges from sending you risky impressions, stopping you bidding on them. Additionally, monitor for non-human traffic on websites to ensure bots aren’t taking your ad spend.

Extending this process to brand safety, you may decide only to buy from domains which provide full transparency about their audience and inventory. This first vetting stage protects against adverse environments, but you can also deploy page crawlers to scan each page and URL to detect unsafe content ahead. A firewall should act as the final line of defence, blanking over any adverts on a troublesome page to ensure that they’re neither placed nor seen.

Programmatic can offer huge benefits, but the response from some advertisers to current concerns over brand safety is putting that at risk. Our own industry sakoku, whitelisting, risks setting us back at a critical time for programmatic—a mistake we can’t afford to make. Instead, we need to change both our approach to measurement and our views on transparency across the ecosystem.

Attila Jakab is managing director at Infectious Media


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