Imagine you've booked a holiday at a new island resort. On arrival, the hotel can only be described as a total nightmare: there are no staff anywhere; the beach is tiny; the tap water is 'alive'; the bar is X-rated; and the souvenir shop is full of pirate DVDs.
Panicked, you abandon your lacklustre accommodation to seek refuge and safety at the hotel next door, where there are no health, safety, legal or moral hazards in sight.
As you cry into your margarita, the manager stops and listens to your story. How, you ask him, is this hotel so well built and run? Well, says the manager, we use local partners for surveying, construction, retail, and security, but we hold them all to our high standards.
So then, how did the travesty next door happen, you ask? Ah, we ask for and get far better standards because we're part of a global chain, says the manager. The operator next door has no such luck as no building, health, or business codes are in force on this island. I'm afraid they are at a greater risk of being scammed.
An industry with no code
In Southeast Asia, this happens. As a result, digital advertisers often show up on sites and apps with no humans, inflated visitor numbers, frequently linked to malware, and packed with stolen or harmful content.
There's been a positive reduction in ad fraud and misplacement in the region, but further progress has been slowed because these issues are stubbornly persistent. For example, a quick look at DoubleVerify's recent global report (that included the six main ASEAN ad markets) indicates roughly that four in 10 display ads and three in 10 video ads served would fail to meet their definition of 'authentic'.
Advertisers get caught out even in a mature digital advertising hub like Singapore. Today, several well-known telco, travel and ecommerce brands are seen in illegal places and unwelcome contexts. So, if big advertisers with full access to knowledge and resources are not immune, where does that leave the rest of the market?
There's a long checklist advertisers must follow to lower the risk of appearing in dodgy places, but fundamentally it means vigilance, defensiveness and–crucially–following a code of practice.
What infects one of us affects all of us
Proper digital marketplace standards will make our region a less attractive target for bad actors, improve advertising performance, and support responsible businesses. Period.
First, any company that wants to participate should have its credentials checked to ensure they are a legitimate business. This might seem obvious, but bad actors can't act if we don't let them in.
Second, every organisation must show it is organised, resourced and with accountable staff responsible for avoiding harm. Third, what gets measured gets managed, so the first compliance rule has rules.
Third, when advertisers only work with those companies that meet industry standards, it incentivises others who don't. Like in the hotel example, anyone wanting business from the best buyers must be a responsible seller.
Finally, the digital ad industry is an ecosystem. Even advertisers with sound systems face greater risk if others, inadvertently or otherwise, let in bad actors. So it needs industry standards that cover everyone.
Creating global supply chain standards
Today, advertisers who choose to buy only from the parts of the Southeast Asian digital advertising supply chain that meets global standards can reap significant benefits. For example, a recent APAC (excluding China) report produced by TAG and The 614 Group showed they could reduce ad fraud rates by up to 2.5 times by avoiding partners who can't or won't put their businesses or processes under external scrutiny.
But this is not just about 'exporting' Western standards across the world as is: industry associations in Japan, Hong Kong and even China have successfully adapted global standards so they can be integrated at the industry level.
Formally setting standards in Southeast Asia is a logical next step to making our region a fairer, safer, and less attractive place to criminals and bad actors. But who can help make it happen?
Leading Southeast Asia
As I've travelled Southeast Asia, I've noticed that overseas organisations often bring international standards and start conversations on important issues ranging from labour rights to environmental responsibility. I think of it as a type of 'social contract' where guest companies can help reinforce standards to be more robust in the region, hoping for a safer and cleaner ecosystem.
The digital advertising practices of most multinationals are at a point where there's little cost to them in asking for standards in Southeast Asia that would help them and others save money, protect their brands and lower risks for consumers. Nevertheless, a single advertiser can be a catalyst: In 2017, Procter & Gamble's Marc Pritchard demanded its US digital supply chain clean up its act, get certified, or lose business. The result? Companies across the supply chain complied.
Global media agencies and supply partners are well-positioned too. Supply side platforms (SSPs), like SpotX and Magnite, have undergone a rigorous process to apply multiple standards worldwide. As a result, media owners, particularly larger ones, can influence local markets. Many would benefit from standards through improved yields and buyer preferences. For example, more buyers would see their inventory for sale in global SSPs.
Finally, at a minimum, every advertising or marketing industry association should publicly support standards and partner with TAG, so the industry doesn't have another group to manage. For example, the IPA joined TAG's leadership to represent UK agency marketers. The IAB in Hong Kong accepted TAG's help to do the 'heavy lifting' of establishing market-wide standards.
What supports one of us helps all of us
In our fictional example, it's unlikely the upstanding hotel would pass up a chance to help prevent fraud, sleaze, infection, and piracy from the residence next door.
In 2023 we have an excellent opportunity to improve our industry by putting in a collective effort to combat ad fraud, misplacement and ad-enabled malware. This year TAG will be reaching out to leaders across the ecosystem to ask for support, conducting industry roundtables, sponsoring the Brand Safety Summit Asia and launching new industry research.
We hope we can count on everyone's support.
Nick Stringer is vice president of global engagement & operations at the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG)