Alex Khan
Apr 3, 2017

The headlines show the digital industry needs to win back trust

But how? AOL's Alex Khan offers three principles to follow.

Alex Khan
Alex Khan

Digital advertising has been in the news a lot lately, and not for good reasons. The latest storm over ads appearing alongside extremist videos has seen a slew of advertisers cancelling schedules.

This comes on the back of news that Facebook had been, for two years, overstating the amount of time spent viewing videos on its site. As Unilever's chief marketing officer put it, Facebook was being left to "mark their own homework."

Overstating the reach or impacts of a campaign is not limited to Facebook, of course. Last year, a wave of endemic bot fraud cheated advertisers of more than $7 billion. Also viewability, the degree in which an end-user actually sees an ad continues to be a concern in our industry.

Now, digital media is in the news for spreading fake news and hate speech. Germany could be the first country to crack down on the problem, with hefty fines for companies that don’t do enough to remove false or defamatory content.

It’s a dream for traditional offline publishers who can argue that their digital cousins have little control over content or where ads appear. Issues around trust and accountability, that were concerns being tackled within the industry, are now out in the public. The dirty washing is there for all to see.

Advertisers and publishers are trying to tackle all this through data. They want greater insight into cross-channel/device measurement to understand campaign success. That’s why brands are investing more in data collection and analytics. They are eager to have access to more pipes and sources, to provide greater transparency on who is seeing their ads and who is not. The problem is, the data is often difficult to source and there are some sizeable publishers who command big audiences but offer little in the way of audience data.

Technology platforms, given their position as both ad-buying and ad-selling facilitators, are particularly well positioned to deliver on increased calls for transparency and accountability. But that requires shifting away from the traditional "walled garden" model of digital advertising and embracing a more open and flexible approach. Here's how.

Construct open technology. Open technology will unlock greater transparency in the advertising ecosystem. According to Gartner, there are more than 2,000 "significant" platforms in the ad tech landscape. Even with consolidation, successful technology services on both the buy and sell-side need to be vendor and media-agnostic. They must be designed to be open and flexible -- capable of integrating with hundreds of popular third-party services and sources that fit into the larger advertising supply chain. The desire to be a "walled garden" will, of course, continue to exist, but without open, transparent technology, ROI and data is often obfuscated

Encourage third-party verification. Third-party verification is quickly becoming standard protocol in digital advertising, and technology platforms need to proactively embrace this shift as the cost of doing business. A survey by the Association of Advertisers, for instance, revealed that 97% of advertisers want independent measurement of their media buys from third-party companies like Moat, DoubleVerify and ComScore. Advertisers are now choosing who they work with, based on whether or not they will allow independent verification. This matters not just for viewability and ad fraud, but also for general attribution and campaign success. Facebook was slow to allow third party verification, but after being accused of ‘marking its own homework’ in 2016 it has added a number of third party verification tools and recently announced that it will be audited by the Media Rating Council.

Practice transparency. Around the world, programmatic ad tech has quickly become the backbone of internet advertising. According to emarketer, programmatic ad spend in the U.S. has grown more than 72% over the last three years. Whilst adoption has been a little slower in Asia Pacific, the tide is starting to turn. Magna Global forecast Indonesia will see a fivefold increase in spending from 2015 to 2019, whilst it will double in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam,

For advertisers, automated buys versus direct sales has allowed for smarter, more efficient data-driven transactions. However, even with its considerable benefits, many advertisers continue to cite transparency challenges across programmatic environments. With programmatic technology so deeply embedded in the ad supply chain, vendors offering solutions need to ensure "well-lit" auctions for their customers. This means delivering greater transparency across the programmatic lifecycle -- being upfront about demand sources, fees, CPMs, bids and attribution.

The industry's cautious trust has always been fragile, but the crisis of confidence which we’re now seeing spill over into the public domain will only generate a new era of transparent and accountable digital advertising, with vendors leading the charge. The era of blurry accountability is dying, but the future is transparent and bright.

Alex Khan is managing director of AOL Asia and ANZ

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