Let’s set the stage, so that we are all clear on the risks faced by advertisers when it comes to digital media in general and programmatic digital media buying in particular. Consider the following quote from Bob Liodice, President and CEO of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA):
“The level of criminal, non-human traffic literally robbing marketers’ brand-building investments is a travesty. The staggering financial losses and the lack of real, tangible progress at mitigating fraud highlights the importance of the industry’s Trustworthy Accountability Group in fighting this war. It also underscores the need for the entire marketing ecosystem to manage their media investments with far greater discipline and control against a backdrop of increasingly sophisticated fraudsters.”
What prompted Mr. Liodice’s comments? Quite simply, the ANA and White Ops updated their 2015 “BOT Baseline: Fraud in Digital Advertising” study, which suggested that the ad industry would see $6.3 billion in digital ad fraud in 2015. In light of the fact that the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) reported that digital ad revenue surged almost twenty-percent through the first half of last year, can we be surprised by the fact that the level of fraud escalated as well. To what, you ask. According to the ANA report, it is estimated that the level of digital ad fraud will grow to $7.2 billion in 2016.
The challenge for individual advertisers is to determine how best to insulate their organizations from digital ad fraud, while continuing to support industry initiatives focused on the same end.
For many advertisers the question is quite simply; “But where do we begin?” The answer as the late Stephen Covey once intoned is to; “Begin with the end in mind.” So what is the end goal? For most advertisers the aim is to focus digital media investment on media sources that can reliably drive the highest level of effectiveness using the best quality inventory at the lowest possible price.
One important component of this challenge is obviously the continued growth of programmatic digital media buying. It should be noted that of the estimated $60 billion in digital media spend, programmatic will account for $15 billion or 25% of the total spend. However, one must consider that programmatic buying represents a very high percentage of digital ad fraud, up to 90% according to some industry experts.
The range of tactics employed by entities and individuals seeking to profit from the growth of digital spending are many and varied, they include; click-fraud, the use of BOTs, hidden ads and impression laundering. However, the primary source of digital media fraud is in the form of URL masking, which makes it impossible for advertisers or their agencies to know where their digital ads are running. Studies have shown that nearly 45% of transactional digital URLs do not match the URL where the impressions were actually served… a sobering statistic to be sure.
In our experience there are three things that advertisers can do to mitigate the level of risk posed by fraudsters.
First and foremost, advertisers must improve the level of transparency between their programmatic buying partner and their own organization. This can be done by employing contractual language and controls which narrow the transparency gap that more than likely exists today. Too often, agencies simply introduce their trading desk operation to their clients, without amending their current agreement or allowing the advertiser to contract directly with the trading desk entity.
Contract language should provide limitations on the percentage of total digital media spending that can be allocated to programmatic and impart clear “signing authority” guidelines in the event those levels are to be altered. Additionally, the agency should be required to provide a staffing plan, which includes data scientists and data analysts, along with the team’s estimated utilization rates and hours by individual. Complement this by incorporating copies of the media verification and performance tracking reports that will be utilized to monitor impression delivery, ad viewability and fraud detection. Finally, we suggest requiring the agency to separate the costs for media, data and technology licensing from agency fees, each of which should be reconciled to actual.
The second line of defense for advertisers comes in the form of requiring their programmatic media buying partners to utilize a Media Rating Council (MRC) accredited digital technology/ platform provider. Firms such as Integral Ad Science and Double Verify, for example, have a range of tools that can integrate with pre-bid platforms to provide real-time impression authentication to improve the odds that an advertisers impressions will be delivered in a contextually relevant, brand safe and fraud free environment. When nefarious behavior is identified, these tools can block impressions from being delivered there and dynamically blacklist those sites. In addition, there are tech solutions now available, which can assess inventory hygiene within ad networks and exchanges, allowing advertisers to target higher quality impressions.
Finally, advertisers must apply their buy-side leverage and demand that their agency partners and third-party vendors work collaboratively to optimize their digital media investment. Those parties that cannot demonstrate that they are continuously improving their tools, methodologies and compliance monitoring processes should be dropped from consideration set. Voting with one’s dollar has always been and remains one of the best ways to incent the behavior and secure the types of results that diligent advertisers deserve.
In the words of Samuel Johnson, the celebrated eighteenth century English writer:
“What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.”