Shawn Lim
Jan 15, 2024

The case for curation: How vetted inventory may be the key to success in a cookie-less world

With the industry's shift towards a privacy-first marketplace, curation becomes crucial in balancing data privacy with ad inventory monetisation. Campaign explores.

The case for curation: How vetted inventory may be the key to success in a cookie-less world

In a complex and opaque programmatic marketplace, a number of key barriers are hindering buyers and agencies from committing exclusively to curated and vetted inventory. This includes the difficulty of balancing the need for high-quality inventory with competitive pricing and scalability.

For example, Google has allegedly been running search ads through several problematic websites, including hardcore pornographic, pirated content and sanctioned Iranian and Russian websites, among others.  

According to a report from Adalytics, hundreds of these undesirable websites have had their inventory sold via Google's 'Search Partner network', a tool which extends a brand's search campaign's reach beyond Google's core search product via a network of third-party websites.    

Should brands not wish to utilise it in their search campaigns, Google's Search Partner network is a tick-box option that needs to be opted out of—and unless it is a Performance Max (PMAX) campaign, brands cannot opt-out from using the product.  

Campaign previously covered how PMAX is a 'black box' despite promising a massive $20 billion enhancement in programmatic advertising efficiency through advanced AI-driven decision-making. 

Adalytics' report also suggests this auto-opt-in format has led to many brands unknowingly signing up for the Search Partner network. The report claims to have seen advertising from government entities, Fortune 500 companies, and US and European politicians, among other major brands, served on these problematic websites. 

Media buyers who do not request that their agencies strictly buy curated and vetted inventory will only see their efficiency and effectiveness of advertising strategies tainted, making it harder to achieve optimal results.

Adding a curational entity to the programmatic value path helps optimise the supply chain, reconciling the need for quality with cost-effectiveness and scale.

With the industry's shift towards a privacy-first, consent-based marketplace, curation becomes essential in balancing data privacy with ad inventory monetisation. 

Campaign explores how increasing the usage of curated inventory will reshape the dynamics between buyers, agencies, and programmatic platforms, prioritising quality, privacy compliance, and value in the programmatic advertising ecosystem.

The challenges of committing to curated and vetted inventory

Several barriers prevent buyers and agencies from exclusively committing to curated and vetted inventory in the advertising industry. These include limitations such as reach and scale because curated and vetted inventory may not always offer the same expansive touch as open-market inventory, hindering advertisers' ability to reach a broader audience.

Another issue is that curated inventory may not offer the same real-time optimisation capabilities in programmatic advertising. This limitation can affect the ability to adjust strategies based on performance data.

Finally, curated inventory often comes at a higher cost than open-market options. Advertisers may need to allocate more budget for these premium placements.

"While curated and vetted inventory can offer benefits such as brand safety and quality placements, the barriers above can impact advertising strategies' overall efficiency and effectiveness," Larraine Criss, chief operating officer at Preciso, tells Campaign.

"Striking a balance between curated and open-market inventory and leveraging technology for real-time optimisation can help advertisers navigate these challenges more effectively."

Aditya Aima, Nishanth Raju, Matt Farrington and Larraine Criss

In addition, Matt Farrington, head of partnerships and investment for Asia-Pacific at Yahoo, points out there are complications in achieving scale where campaigns experience degradation of the environment and placement quality in non-premium and made-for-advertising inventory.

He explains marketers can consider a complementary approach with curation as a specialist strategy alongside other programmatic tools.

"On the other hand, for activities focused on brand-led outcomes targeted at the mid-upper funnel of the customer journey, we are seeing a growing shift towards curated marketplaces and a greater emphasis on fewer, more premium publishers," Farrington tells Campaign.

"Another deterrent on the minds of many would be a signal loss, which will hopefully improve with better advancements in ad tech and partnerships across the ecosystem. A reduced inventory makes it more difficult to achieve scale, even more so when proprietary data sets are overlaid."

Commitment to a new way of planning and buying media will require monumental cross-functional efforts for agency teams, Nishanth Raju, managing director for Asia at Lotame, explains to Campaign.

Raju notes programmatic teams are hardwired to plan, execute and optimise media campaigns within their demand-side platforms (DSPs).

"While agencies are best placed to curate their media eventually, top-down alignment,  training and investment will be required to change the status quo. Until then, agencies and buyers will lean on supply-side services that collect a fee (directly or indirectly) for curating and executing buyer auction packages," says Raju.

Balancing high-quality inventory with the demand for competitive pricing and scale

With the deprecation of third-party cookies and identifiers, there is already a higher relevance and importance of curational entities in the programmatic value chain, giving access to advertisers and agency partners to large supply caches based on first-party audience data sets that have a high level of quality advertising inventory attached.

Aditya Aima, the managing director for agency business at AnyMind Group, tells Campaign with the unpreparedness of the current publisher ecosystem—which would soon be bereft of cookies or identifiers—there will be a higher reliance on a pool of trusted publisher partners and curated supply. These will be augmented by AI, and can help with the current trust deficit that exists due to the opacity of the programmatic chain.

"On the other hand, a transparent supply chain can lead to optimisations for brands with safe contextual havens for advertising," says Aima.

"Working with various curated supply partners and utilising practical, unbiased third-party tools can create opportunities for effective supply deals that can boost the performance of campaigns and offer competitive pricing models."

Farrington notes curation layers can help advertisers reach the right audiences in relevant contextual environments. They also help marketers save time, alleviating them of the laborious grunt work of scouring supply-side platforms (SSPs) to identify relevant inventory and placements that meet their objectives.

While it adds a step to the programmatic chain, there are still efficiencies gained from having a single buying point that works with several supply exchanges to find the proper inventory.

"This is where AI can help further optimise the supply chain and reconcile high-quality inventory with competitive pricing, scale and efficiency," says Farrington.

"AI can help remove the guesswork, often a sizeable manual time sink, involved in finding the best supply path to their target audience while meeting target spend and KPIs."

Streamlining ad supply paths will effectively remove redundant and duplicative auction requests to buyers like bidding across multiple auctions for the same inventory), reducing the hops and costs extracted by intermediaries between publishers and buyers.

"Combining the advantages of the private marketplace model, like supply transparency, brand safety, and control across multiple publishers, ensures premium inventory can be activated close to the same scale as an open auction buy," explains Raju.

The role of curation in privacy-centric cohort monetisation

The deprecation of third-party cookies and identifiers also means shifting towards a privacy-first, consent-based marketplace; a robust identity and targeting solution must back curation and access to premium supply.

For example, Yahoo's platform determines the total value of programmatic curation in a cookieless world through Yahoo ConnectID and Yahoo Backstage, its direct-to-publisher supply offering.

Yahoo believes in cleaning up the "noise" in the programmatic supply chain and providing instant access to valuable audiences in quality environments. Marketers can bring and activate their data within the Yahoo DSP and on the Yahoo Backstage supply partners.

"At the same time, they can leverage external data from their partners, including Yahoo, to drive privacy-centric, effective and personalised full-funnel campaigns," explains Farrington.

"Keeping in mind that by late 2024, 75% of all inventory is predicted to be non-addressable, approaches towards curation will need to take an integrated approach to identity with ID-based and ID-less solutions to reach audiences across all environments."

Farrington adds: "Curation layers must cater to non-addressable audiences, incorporating authenticated users through first-party data PMPs and layers that leverage context."

Raju points out that curation unlocks audience targeting upstream from the DSP, which adds privacy safeguards to programmatic buying and removes the need to map or send user IDs up and down the ad supply chain, including the open bid stream.

"Instead, audiences are matched to traffic using publisher first-party signals and sent to the DSP on Deal IDs, effectively distributed as pre-qualified cohorts," explains Raju.

In addition, third-party curation partners allow publishers to utilise high-tech proprietary tools that can add value to the deal IDs for any DSP to target without using individually identifiable data. 

Aima says the mobile advertising ecosystem is an excellent example, where mobile applications have already been exposed to a privacy-first world, with Apple having introduced App Tracking Transparency.

Having a privacy-first world in mobile first-party data identifiers can help curation partners deliver highly personalised and contextually relevant ads to mobile users.

"The most significant shift lies in prioritising quality over quantity, where focus is shifted towards the relevance and quality of cohorts, resulting in more meaningful interactions with targeted audiences," explains Aima.

"Advertisers that access well-curated inventory and filters will benefit from consolidated audience, contextual and predictive data layered over third-party inventory, whilst publishers that work with curation partners will continue to stay relevant and monetise in a privacy-first world."

How will curated inventory shape the future dynamics of the industry?

Advertisers and agencies have been seeking more value from their programmatic advertising strategies, including a simple supply path that provides media efficiency alongside quality outcomes from premium supply.

This demand is driving competition (and pricing) in the programmatic marketplace. While this could be hugely beneficial for publisher yields, it also means the industry may re-evaluate what it costs to reach audiences for programmatic to keep delivering value.

"With a growing spotlight on attention metrics, publishers are already turning their focus to producing ad placements that work harder—and this has compelled ad platforms to level up their buying strategies to offer more value," explains Farrington.

"Curation is a result of the industry's move towards quality metrics, and we will see more curation players seeking ways to actively integrate with platforms to deliver more choices for advertisers in the quest for quality."

Aima suggests the most significant change would be the focus on quality over quantity, shifting priorities towards curations aligned with audience preferences and campaign goals rather than a spray-and-pray approach towards a convoluted and vast supply path and audience pool.

"Here, value-based relationships are a requisite between buyers and agencies and the platforms they work with, prioritising curation entities that deliver quality, transparency, privacy and diversity on curated inventory," explains Aima.

"These curation entities should also already be working closely with their publisher partners, not just focusing on maximising returns, but also on providing maximum value to advertisers."

Raju predicts that direct SSP and publishers' relationships with buyers will likely expand as the drive towards transparency and sustainability increases.

"KPIs and optimisation levers will also evolve as cookies diminish and the effectiveness of traditional DSP algorithms declines in performance," he says.

Campaign Asia

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