David Blecken
Dec 21, 2018

Brands must lead on transparency: IAS' Scott Knoll

In a final Q&A before stepping into an advisory role, the outgoing CEO of Integral Ad Science discusses how far—or not—the industry has come.

Scott Knoll in Tokyo
Scott Knoll in Tokyo

After eight years as CEO of Integral Ad Science (IAS), Scott Knoll is due to hand over the reins to Lisa Utzschneider (formerly of Yahoo) in January. Campaign asked Knoll on a recent trip to Tokyo how far he thinks things have progressed, both in Japan and globally, in terms of brand safety, viewability and general transparency.

In many respects, things have not come as far as Knoll would have liked. But he is enthused by the fact that marketers are starting to play a more active role in tackling the threats to their business online, and that proprietary platforms are gradually opening up to third-party monitors such as IAS. In Japan, he sees people taking issues like brand safety more seriously, but would like to see digital advertising measurement evolve away from click-through rates.

“We need to create a way for brands to evaluate the success of their campaigns and really understand how better to use digital marketing to influence consumers, because at some point that’s going to be the only option and we’re not ready for that here for sure,” he said.

When issues such as brand safety, viewability and fraud were first blowing up internationally, it seemed they barely registered here in Japan. Is this how it appeared to you as well?

Yes and no. Brand safety is hard to ignore when something bad happens. A lot of times it takes a while to get discovered, because a campaign is targeted to an individual, therefore the incident could just affect that person. When it’s a high profile person who sees it, that’s when it becomes a big deal. That’s happened everywhere in the world and right away the blame goes to the CEO who goes to the marketing department which goes to the agency and everyone’s looking to figure out how it happened. The thing about brand safety is, it doesn’t happen on purpose. No one goes out and tries to put an ad next to bad content. It’s just that the infrastructure we’ve built for buying ads is faulty.

The argument people come up with here for not worrying is that Japan is a safe place where bad things like this don’t happen.

That’s certainly not the case. I would say five percent of inventory that’s bad is still a lot. It may be lower than in some countries but it’s still an issue. What’s interesting too in talking to a lot of brands is there seems to be sensitivity towards topics that are endemic to Japan and aren’t a big problem in the US or other countries… The point is that brand safety measures have to be customised for this market because Japan is different and more so than most markets.

It still seems difficult to prevent an ad from appearing in an undesirable location.

Reporting on brand safety is very different to reporting on viewability. With viewability, you waste a bit of money because your ads weren’t in view, but next time, you optimise towards it. With brand safety, a report basically tells you your ad was on content that maybe already harmed your brand. So from a technology perspective there are two ways to approach it. The easiest is programmatically to give that signal ahead of time, or to give that data to a publisher so it never serves an ad on a page that’s not brand safe. The other way is that we can prevent an ad being served. We’re making decisions on billions of ads to send or not send. Part of what we offered this year was to do it in-app. The only way to truly prevent a brand safety issue is to use proactive technology, not measurement, because by the time measurement tells you the problem has happened, it’s too late.

What’s changed in the way people think about viewability?

Where the market’s grown is in the recognition that viewability should not be a binary metric. The amount of time in view is a really critical element of any ad campaign. The longer an ad is in front of a consumer, the better chance it has of influencing them. That’s not a new concept, it’s just that finally with digital we’re able to start measuring that and controlling for it. So viewability has expanded from ‘good/bad’ or ‘in-view/not-in-view’ to ‘how long is my ad in view’.

Facebook has upset a lot of people this year, including advertisers. Are platforms like this becoming any more transparent?

Certainly a lot more than a couple of years ago. Is it as transparent as the open web? It isn’t yet, but we’re definitely moving in that direction. With YouTube, brand safety is definitely helping. Ultimately, big marketers want to have the same technology and tools that they use for buying advertising on the open web in these platforms. The want to compare performance so they need the same metrics and the same technologies.

When it comes to transparency issues, how much blame should be put on marketers?

A lot of blame should be put on them. Ultimately things won’t change until marketers ask them to change. So from that perspective there’s a lot of responsibility on tham. Perhaps more responsibility than blame… Now that the data is out there, really the onus is on brands to take charge and own that mandate. We’ve seen it in the US with companies like P&G saying that digital marketing has to change. That’s what’s helped lead to some of the walled gardens opening up. In Japan it would be great if we had a couple of leading marketers demand the same things.

You’re not seeing anyone do that?

I think we’re seeing more interest in understanding the issues, and we’re having more good conversations and selling more to marketers directly, but to my knowledge there hasn’t been anyone who’s publicly gone on the record and said things have to change. But we’re in a better place now. If you look at our client mix, we used to work just with agencies, but now we work with a lot of marketers directly. Even if it’s through an agency, the client is involved in the decision and is ultimately looking at the data.

Marketers everywhere still struggle to see the big picture because they’re unable to join up different datasets. Is this ever going to change?

Yes, at some point, but there are a lot of challenges. First of all you have the walled gardens—you don’t know the person you’re targeting there is the same person you’re targeting somewhere else. The technology to enable it exists but it requires cooperation from the walled gardens. And of course there’s a movement against tying all this data together, particularly in Europe with GDPR. I think we’ll get there as an industry but for now we’ve almost taken a step backwards. The second part is trying to understand how long an ad needs to be in front of someone to drive the desired outcome. More time is definitely good but at some point there are diminishing returns.

You are dabbling with blockchain. What’s the biggest benefit you see this technology bringing to the marketing sector?

One of the challenges of this industry is not just lack of transparency in terms of where an ad shows up, but in terms of between a brand and a publisher: how many people are actually involved and how many people make money on each transaction. Depending on the country you can see there’s more money to be made in the middle steps, by far, than is made on the end steps. Clearly that opens up the opportunity for fraud or waste that an advertiser doesn’t recognise is happening. There are all kinds of markups within that, some of which are more egregious than others, and from a brand’s perspective, to be able to understand that flow of money is going to be important.

Campaign Japan

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