Rhys Williams
Jul 3, 2023

ANA’s programmatic transparency study: time for an industry overhaul?

An independent agency leader in the UK takes us through ANA's latest study and what advertisers can do.

ANA’s programmatic transparency study: time for an industry overhaul?

The latest report on the programmatic media supply chain commissioned by the ANA makes for a fascinating read (yes really!) and, most importantly, gives advertisers a clear set of recommendations for how to drive better value from their media investment in this space. 

Some of the recommendations highlighted in the ANA report should be fairly standard for any advertiser investing in this space (quality metrics, inclusions lists) and already in place, so I will focus on the bigger issues raised.  

My views on the programmatic landscape come from the unique vantage point of working at an independent agency with a programmatic model built on complete transparency and media neutrality. 

So, with no axe to grind and no undisclosed income to protect, I will be unpacking the main issues highlighted in the report, with the intention of helping brands gain greater control and drive greater value from their digital investments.

Keep it simple

Firstly, I think it’s important we remember that programmatic media doesn’t actually exist, and no one sits down to watch a programmatic video or read a programmatic article. It is a trading mechanic for buying omnichannel media. When done properly, it can be an extremely efficient and effective way of buying and optimising media campaigns, but it’s clearly become convoluted, wasteful and in some cases not designed with an advertiser’s best interests at heart – made for advertising (MFA) websites being a good example. 

It is noteworthy that the ANA report highlights a substantial increase, from 10% to 16%, in the portion claimed by the SSP from each programmatically spent pound. If I were an advertiser, I would be asking some serious questions here. We need to focus on simplifying the technology used in the programmatic trading process and streamline wherever possible. 

Every advertiser should insist on having their individual programmatic technology stack mapped out and with full transparency on the role and value each partner brings to the chain. This will not only make auditing and log level data access much easier, but it will also help to reduce your programmatic carbon footprint as highlighted in the report.

Personally, I am not convinced that an advertiser holding direct contracts with the programmatic supply chain partners is the answer, and this could become overly complicated and cumbersome. It would also be hard for agencies to navigate multiple different contracts when activating client campaigns. Much of the bad behaviour happens “off book” and holding the contract won’t change that. Instead, insist on full partner transparency and keep the focus on simplifying your programmatic technology stack with a clear understanding of the value each partner brings. Simple is most definitely better.

Tackling log level data is key

Access to log level data is a thorny issue and, as highlighted by the report, still a problem for many advertisers, especially those who are working on “undisclosed” models. The undisclosed model, either from an agency or media supplier, is flawed and designed to tilt the game in their favour. 

It often looks cheaper upfront or de-risked, but when you run analysis on the data and focus on working media, it becomes a lot less attractive. Ignore the upfront fees/commissions and focus on maximising the amount of working media you get for every £1 of media investment.

Log level data is large, complex, hard to access and analyse unless you have the right skillset and technology setup. I think the ANA report underplays how hard this can be, but there are independent solutions out there that can help, and for a large-scale advertiser, it might be worth considering a partner in this space or encouraging your agency to put one in place.

Not all digital media is created equally 

Issues with the programmatic supply chain do not make digital media bad or ineffective. High-quality digital media publishers and placements have a significant role to play on any advertiser’s media plan, but as an industry we have become overly obsessed with the trading technology or process. 

Using data and technology for media targeting has become more important than media planning and this needs to change. We need to get the focus back to strong media planning, premium media inventory and appropriate use of data and technology. This will mean a rethink on how clients audit and measure media value.

Open exchange or web publishers and placements should not simply be discounted and can be highly effective for advertisers and especially those running performance activity. However, as highlighted in the ANA report, advertisers need to insist on strict controls and KPIs around viewability, fraud and brand safety. 

Rethink value and focus on working media

Measuring media value needs a complete overhaul and the focus on price over quality has partly driven some of the bad behaviours raised in the ANA report. It has also had a significant impact on the carbon emissions from a programmatically traded campaign because volume of impressions is seen as more important than value impressions. I totally understand this is a complicated area and it’s hard for procurement teams and media auditors to define “value” for media bought programmatically, but it’s an important step if we are to move forward. 

A good starting point is switching the focus away from fixed CPTs (cost per thousand impressions) and towards a basket of metrics. Using a base CPT and then laddering up – quality metrics, attention, data overlay and context. This could be designed on an advertiser basis (versus cross-market) and take into consideration their specific requirements such as target audience or desired outcomes, be it increasing brand awareness or driving mid-funnel brand consideration. 

By customising the metrics framework in this manner, we can better align with advertisers' goals and optimise programmatic media buying strategies. Yes, it’s more complicated, but it has to be better than the current model or at least a strong starting point.

Next steps

Let’s not kid ourselves that bad practice doesn’t persist in the industry, but it's important to recognise that this doesn't encompass all agencies or programmatic vendors. When done properly, programmatic media buying can be efficient, effective and deliver great results for advertisers. 

The mounting evidence provided in reports by ISBA and the ANA do show, however, that the industry needs a new approach from clients, agencies and auditors. Make it simple, ensure that best practice is applied to every campaign, full data transparency with an action plan, and a rethink of how you assess the value of media bought programmatically. 

We also need to be clear on the role of programmatic teams, both agency and in-house. They are traders, not media planners. In many cases, programmatic trading decisions are overriding good media planning and risk losing sight of what an advertiser is trying to achieve. 

Rhys Williams is co-founder and CEO of independent digital agency Agenda21 in the UK.

Campaign UK

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