Sound preposterous? Perhaps not when you consider how much of an advertiser’s investment is siphoned off by digital fraudsters and criminals. One has to wonder if the efficacy of a reallocated media mix would really hamper in-market performance.
Let’s face it, in spite of the incessant level of press coverage, advertiser, agency and publisher posturing and the formation of numerous industry task forces, digital ad fraud has continued unabated.
In March of 2014 the IAB estimated that approximately 36% of all web traffic was fake, the result of bots. In December of 2014 a joint study by the ANA and White Ops, an ad security firm, estimated that digital fraud accounted for $6.3 billion out of a total estimated spend of $48 billion.
Various other studies have suggested that up to 50% of publisher traffic is bot related and that somewhere between 3% and 31% of programmatically bought ad impressions were from bots. During December of 2014 there was a research study done on FT.com which revealed that “in a single month, 72% of the ad impressions offered on open ad exchanges as being on FT.com were fraudulent.” The impressions were from sites pretending to be the FT and the ads appeared only on sites viewed by bots.
Ironically, in spite of the financial impact of these crimes, advertisers continue to spend an increasing percentage of their marketing budgets on digital media. According to Strategy Analytics, digital media will reach $52.8 billion in U.S. ad spending in 2015, accounting for 28% of every dollar spent, second only to TV. Further, while every other medium is either losing revenue or seeing low single digit growth, digital is anticipated to grow at 10% to 13% per annum over the next three years.
There are a number of industry stakeholders benefiting from the meteoric growth in digital spending, publishers, ad tech providers and agencies to name a few. For example, the major ad agency holding companies have seen revenues from digital media grow to represent up to 50% of their annual revenue base.
Thus it was with a slightly cynical eye that I viewed the recent press release from the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG) regarding their latest initiative to combat digital ad fraud. The focus of the release was straightforward enough, dealing with working to minimize “illegitimate and non-human ad traffic originating from data centers.” However, in the end it was about Google lending the group its blacklist of suspicious data center IP addresses for use in a pilot program.
As most industry participants know, TAG is the joint effort of the ANA, 4A’s and IAB launched in 2014 to work collaboratively with companies in the digital advertising space to combat ad fraud. While supportive of industry stakeholders teaming up to address key issues, one wonders how likely it is that TAG will be able to mitigate advertiser financial risks in the near-term.
Curiously, on July 23rd the 4A’s announced the formation of a committee that will focus on addressing “issues related to the digital supply chain.” Their press release pointed out that the newly formed committee will work closely with “other 4A’s committees and task forces, such as the Media Measurement, Data Management and Mobile committees, on policies and best practices.”
Have any of the existing task forces’ yet demonstrated tangible evidence of progress being made to combat digital fraud? It is difficult to imagine how the formation of yet another committee is going to make a difference. Do the organizations forming these ad hoc groups feel that the industry is so superficial and shallow that the news of a new committee will help advertisers feel better about the lack of measurable progress being made on this front?
If the industry doesn’t make concrete progress in the near-term, there is a strong likelihood that we will be welcoming a new “alliance partner” to the team… regulators. We know that historically business in general and the ad industry in particular have never been fans of government involvement. However, if the industry’s self-regulatory approach doesn’t begin to yield results, Washington will assert itself and they should, advertisers are literally being robbed. This is white collar crime at the highest level when you consider that in the U.S. alone, $6.3 billion is being siphoned off by bad actors on an annual basis, 13% of total spending in this specific area.
While the industry struggles to bring order to the chaos surrounding digital media advertisers might rightly ask the question; “Does it really make sense to continue to allocate hard earned dollars to a medium with the audience delivery and viewability issues that currently plague digital?”
What if advertisers were to place a moratorium on digital ad spending until more concrete actions are taken by the industry to protect their investment?
An extreme position? Yes. Unlikely? No doubt. However, this is the type of dramatic action required to force reform and provide advertisers with the transparency and controls required to yield satisfactory returns on their digital media investment. If nothing changes, every incremental dollar invested in digital media will continue to line the pockets of the tech-driven criminals which are preying on advertisers. In turn, this rapidly growing revenue stream allows fraudsters to expand their capabilities at an even quicker rate than those trying to police them creating a “no win” situation for the industry.
From this writer’s perspective, while industry task forces and committees can play a role in furthering the dialog, they will not suffice. Traditional outcomes from these groups include recommended best practices, guidelines, advisory white papers and the formation of new committees to continue the fight… hardly enough to strike fear in the hearts of digital criminals.
In the words of noted businessman Ross Perot:
“If you see a snake, just kill it – don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”