Why the advertising industry needs to reprioritise ad quality urgently

Last year, eMarketer’s Geoff Ramsey highlighted the “crisis of trust” across the digital ecosystem: not only pointing to the need for better relations between brands and consumers, but also within the marketing community itself; covering advertisers, agencies, publishers, and ad tech players.

As 2019 begins, issues with misunderstanding and mistrust persist — especially in programmatic. One of the main talking points at this year’s dmexco was around auction complexity in programmatic advertising, while recent research from the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) shows ad quality concerns such as fraud still represent potential barriers to investment for some. Arguably there is more work to be done to weed out bad practices, so advertisers and publishers can enjoy the benefits of large-scale reach, efficiency, precise targeting and monetisation that programmatic affords, without putting themselves at risk.

So what can be done?

Programmatic: the status quo

It’s important to recognise that positive advances have been made. For instance, Google has applied stricter YouTube controls, such as higher criteria for content producers hoping to host ads and a tougher stance on rule breaking; account deletion after three strikes. Not to mention the launch of its built-in blocker, which instantly wipes disruptive ads on Chrome.

At a wider level, there has also been increased movement towards simplification via supply path optimisation (SPO). Using a blend of automated and manual filtering, the SPO process aims to streamline supply chains; ensuring buyers only purchase inventory that offers the best value, increasing trading efficiency and decreasing complexity.

But despite this progress, issues remain. Juniper Research predicts global advertisers stand to lose billions to fraudulent ads this year and there could be potential annual losses far greater down the line, if nothing changes. To sustain the growth of programmatic advertising, it is essential that trust and security are improved by re-focusing on a vital element: quality.

Setting the bar higher

Quality is a choice, not a guarantee. So, if advertisers want programmatic ads that are safe, valid, and fraud-free, they must prioritise quality. More specifically, they need to leverage industry initiatives designed to raise standards and select partners wisely. Here are two ways:

Embrace industry initiatives

Leading the drive to improve quality across the digital landscape is the IAB. In addition to providing technical standards for building better ads — such as the consumer-friendly LEAN principles and HTML5-centric New Ad Portfolio — the IAB has developed initiatives advertisers can use to better vet buys, including ads.txt. By enabling publishers to place a text file on their servers that details those officially allowed to trade their media, ads.txt creates a reference point advertisers can use to validate inventory and sellers, before parting with spend. In doing so, they can ensure ad budgets aren’t lost to fraud under the guise of genuine or desirable media (i.e. domain spoofing).  

Choose partners wisely

As a further precaution, advertisers should assess potential new partners with care: selecting those that demonstrate a commitment to ad quality. The first key step is looking for partners with external industry certification. For example, checking the list of companies that have earned IAB Gold Standard certification will allow advertisers to quickly establish which technology companies and exchanges have already signed up to follow the IAB’s guidelines (including ads.txt), as well as steer clear of the 12 ‘bad’ ad types as defined by the Coalition for Better Ads, and boost brand safety by working with Jicwebs.

When it comes to minimising fraud risk specifically, they can also prioritise companies who’ve earned seals of approval from the Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG). Since 2016, TAG has run the ‘Certified Against Ad Fraud’ programme, where companies that abide by its guidelines are awarded a seal they can use to publicly display their reliability. By searching for the seal when picking tech partners, advertisers can instantly obtain both peace of mind and a higher level of ad quality. Recent studies show invalid traffic rates for TAG certified channels are 83% lower than those generally measured across the industry.   

Secondly, partners must be able to demonstrate transparency. Advertisers have struggled in the past to discern trustworthy partners from those who are in constant search of ways to game the system to their benefit. One recent example is auction mechanics, where certain practices (i.e. bid caching) or even the type of auction (first or second price) are not always clear to the buyer. Another example is whether or not the technology partner is upfront about fee structure, sharing details about additional costs and where they apply.

Luckily some progress has been made to make it easier for advertisers to make more informed decisions. Just last month, six advertising exchanges published an open letter introducing the Programmatic Principles – an outline of clear business practices for technology companies and programmatic transactions. While the principles are in the early stages, the goal is to eventually refine and standardize the ideas included in it to serve as a guide for advertisers and publishers looking to make smarter decisions about their partners.

The industry is undeniably in need of a reboot. But if changes are to be successful, they must be carefully managed and collaborative. Raising quality must be a shared and continuous priority for all components of programmatic: brands, publishers, and tech vendors. And for advertisers especially, it is imperative to start forcing improvement in quality standards by pushing for fraud-free, verified, secure media from transparent partners, and refusing to accept anything less.

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