Six current adtech headaches and what marketers need to do about them

Avoiding the pitfalls of the emerging adtech ecosystem doesn’t need to be complicated. Raise your understanding of these six trending topics to avoid tripping up.

This article originally appeared in The Adtech Issue, a 2017 special edition of Marketing, produced in collaboration with SpotX and TubeMogul.

 

1. Viewability

A metric for measuring whether a served ad has the opportunity to be seen by the viewer.

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As advertisers, we want our ads delivered in nice environments. We want the ad units to be highly visible: large formats in prominent positions. The content, hopefully, is contextually relevant.

Unfortunately, over the years some parts of the internet have reached a state where too many ads are being delivered out of view and, with video advertising, using autoplay with the sound off.

If you’re really unfortunate as a video advertiser, the unviewed ad would loop for multiple impressions, so you repeatedly pay for, essentially, worthless advertising.

Too much unethical behaviour by publishers is what brought viewability to the fore as a topic two or three years ago. That’s when the Making Measurement Make Sense (3MS) initiative to refine things began. 3MS is a cross-industry initiative founded by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As), the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). The Media Rating Council (MRC) is responsible for setting and implementing measurement standards.

The definition of a ‘viewable’ video ad is when 50% of the pixels of the creative are on screen for at least two consecutive seconds in a viewable browser area. So autoplaying ads below the fold or in background tabs aren’t counted.

But it was a long, hard period of negotiation and compromise to reach that point. “The whole point of the 3MS initiative was to find some type of threshold in terms of the delivery of the ad onto the page that conveys or defines that viewer as having the opportunity to have laid eyes on the ad and started to consume it,” says Keith Eadie, chief marketing and strategy officer at TubeMogul.

“The MRC, a group of large publishers, large brands and big media agencies fought about this definition for about 12 months.”

Brands, understandably, wanted it to be 10 seconds with 100% of the pixels on the page. Publishers, understandably, wouldn’t accept the fault for an advertiser’s weak creative.

So 50% of pixels for two seconds is where they landed. The publisher’s done its job in terms of delivering an ad experience that can capture the attention and deliver that opportunity to be seen by the viewer. After that, it’s up to the quality of the creative to have the consumer keep their eyes on the ad.

Clients seem happy enough with 50% for two seconds. Besides, views are being overtaken by other metrics. “We no longer count views as our key KPI,” says Kate Whitney, global digital director at Pernod Ricard Winemakers. “We are adjusting quickly to completion rates and on-target to ensure our messages are landed as completely as possible to the right users.”

One of the problems with viewability is it cannot be determined until after a viewer has a chance to react to it, or not. The same high-quality, premium publisher delivering a large video player in a clean, contextually relevant page can go either way – whether or not the user scrolls past the player, for instance.

“This is where we are with viewability now,” Eadie says. “Theoretically, pragmatically, technologically, it is impossible to determine before you serve an ad whether it will be viewable or not. You’ve got to let it on the page, and you’ve got to let the user react to it; before it was one or the other.

“This is where you get this huge disconnection between brands and agencies saying they only want to pay for viewable impressions. There’s no technology player on earth that can only buy viewable impressions, because nobody knows on any single impression whether they will be viewed or not until it’s delivered.”

For reference, a premium publisher should be able to achieve a viewability rate of about 70%, assuming this is via a large clean player at the top of the page. The average for inventory bought through exchanges, which includes a bit of everything, is around 40 to 45%.

What marketers should do:

  • Employ a third-party verification tool, such as Integral Ad Science (IAS) or Moat and stick to it. There has been a tendency for discrepancy between the different tech, although it’s getting much better now, so choose one and stick to it for your brand’s single standard of truth.
  • Resign yourself to the fact that 100% viewability is never going to happen. Ad networks may offer to charge you only for viewable impressions, but that will be built into the price.
  • For video, use player size as a proxy for predicting viewability, as it’s currently the best input.
  • Focus on cost per thousand viewable impressions (vCPM, which is a function of CPM and raw viewability rate) when comparing the relative costs of different media types and channels.

 

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2. Ad blockers

A tool, usually a browser plugin, used by a person to stop ads being shown on websites they visit.

Almost 30% of Australian consumers are now using ad blocking technology on one of their devices (IAB Australia and Pureprofile ‘IAB AdBlocking in Australia’, November 2016).

The same study also found ad blockers are used primarily on desktops and laptops, with only 6% of people having ad blockers on mobile devices (and, even then, the vast majority of time spent on mobile is in-app, where ad blockers don’t reach).

The other key stat from the IAB report is that 60% of people have never used an ad blocker or heard of ad blocking.

In dollar terms, one estimate put the total economic cost of ad blocking globally at US$41.4 billion (Pagefair and Adobe ‘2015 Ad Blocking Report’).

Making matters more controversial are the actions of for-profit ad blocking companies. Behind the
spiels about ‘a cleaner internet’, some have turned to charging publishers for whitelisting their site, effectively demanding a ransom and profiting from the advertising they set out to block in the first place.

Putting background issues aside, what causes people to install ad blockers? Is it the quality of the creative itself? Forrester’s Samantha Merlivat thinks so: “Poor ad experiences and undifferentiated advertising strategies have taken their toll on consumers.”

Or maybe it’s more to do with publishers overloading pages with ads. That is the main reason for 16% of people surveyed in the ‘IAB AdBlocking in Australia’ report.

The biggest reason cited by users, however, is a fear of viruses and malware – 20% of respondents in IAB’s survey self-reported this reason.

In reality, there are many influencing factors, but the trend is real and the blame game is not constructive. So what should advertisers and publishers do about it?

For publishers, the IAB’s Ad Blocking Taskforce says that many people are open to modifying their ad blocking habits with the right communication from websites. It suggests polite messaging asking a user to turn off their ad blocker or whitelist a site in exchange for viewing content.

As well as politeness, users want guarantees that the ads served are safe from viruses, will not slow browsing and will not autoplay video or audio. How much of that is promised and delivered is up to each publisher and the quality of the technology chain.

For marketers, the message is simpler. It’s largely the publisher that loses revenue from ad blockers, so the main concern for marketers if they want to combat ad blocking is this: make nicer ads.

Indeed, the rise in the use of ad blockers this year has prompted soul searching in the industry. Scott Cunningham, senior vice president of technology and ad operations at IAB (the US sister body to IAB Australia), who’s also general manager of the IAB Tech Lab, wrote a heartfelt manifesto:

We engineered not just the technical, but also the social and economic foundation that users around the world came to lean on for access to real time information. And users came to expect this information whenever and wherever they needed it. And more often than not, for anybody with a connected device, it was free.

This was choice—powered by digital advertising—and premised on user experience.

But we messed up.

Through our pursuit of further automation and maximisation of margins during the industrial age of media technology, we built advertising technology to optimise publishers’ yield of marketing budgets that had eroded after the last recession. Looking back now, our scraping of dimes may have cost us dollars in consumer loyalty.

 

That blog post launched the IAB Tech Lab’s LEAN Ads programs (Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive), a new set of principles to guide advertising technical standards through their next stages, which Cunningham notes should include things like standardised frequency capping for retargeting ads and better intelligence so that people don’t get hounded by ads for things they’ve already bought.

All of Cunningham’s comments mirror the common complaints from internet users.

Assuming not every advertiser in the world will suddenly switch over to aesthetically pleasant ads, is it an unwinnable battle? Not really. Smart marketers know all this, too. Leading brands are being smarter about online advertising. Display advertising is slowly on the way out and native, video and newer formats will take more and more of its share.

And, besides, inventory is being added at a faster rate than people are taking up ad blockers, so there’ll be more than enough media to go around for the foreseeable future.

  • Read about the IAB’s LEAN Ads principles to get a head start on what the online ads of the future will look like, as well as ‘Ad Blocking: Who Blocks Ads, Why and How to Win Them Back’, by the IAB (US) and C3Research.
  • Read further on the trends in online display advertising and other formats, as on the different types of ‘native’ advertising.

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3. Ad Fraud

Intentional actions by unethical players in the advertising marketplace result in an advertiser paying for an ad that has no chance of being seen by the advertiser’s intended target.

Fraud as a criminal enterprise is as old as money, but the growth of programmatic advertising has resulted in the equal growth and industrialisation of automated digital fraud. Industry working groups, improvements in buying platforms and the creation of third-party verification tools are all aimed at tackling these issues, but it’s a constant case of Whack-a-Mole, just like any virus and any profitable criminal industry.

Thankfully, marketers don’t really need to know the details of the different types of ad fraud, as long as they choose the right adtech partners. But so you can have intelligent discussions, here are the main types of ad fraud relevant to programmatic advertising.

Invisible ads

These are executed through methods such as ‘ad stacking’ using iframes, which are like a website within a website. A publisher can place one or more on top of each other and insert an ad, and the user won’t see it, but it’s clocking up impressions. There are other methods for dodgy publishers to run invisible ads, such as making the iframe only one pixel in size.

Site misrepresentation

Another method of ad fraud is executed by setting up a website’s ad server so that buying platforms are tricked into believing they’re buying premium inventory when they’re not. This is known as domain spoofing, and occurs in real-time bidding environments in which the publisher has an opportunity to declare they’re selling ads on one domain when in reality the ad runs on another. Fraudulent tactics like this demonstrate that ad fraud and brand safety are significantly interconnected.

Another type of misrepresentation, known as bundling, occurs when multiple domains are assigned to a single site ID. As the name suggests, site IDs were designed to correspond to a single site and are how inventory is classified in real-time bidding marketplaces. In practice, many publishers and exchanges bundle multiple domains into a single site ID, meaning that an advertiser’s ads may be serving on a site different to what they intended to buy.

Arbitrage

Related to misrepresentation, this is a practice in which publishers purchase traffic very cheaply and then resell it for a lot more. The site may look half decent and on the face of things appear to be a cost-effective buy for an advertiser, but in reality the publisher is buying rubbish traffic and on-selling it.

Ad injection

Some of the world’s biggest brands and publishers have fallen victim to a type of fraud known as ‘ad injection’.
It occurs when a third-party browser extension/plugin installed by the user hijacks the ad space on the pages visited by the user and replaces them with different advertising.

The user will typically have installed the browser extension/plugin for a different reason, and the maker of that extension/plugin won’t have told them of its other, more nefarious, purpose. With every user of the extension/plugin, the operator can sell more and more inventory into the open advertising exchanges.

There are some operators who argue the practice is legitimate, but the advertisers and publishers being hijacked obviously disagree. Take, for example, the case of Walmart’s website displaying an ad for its competitor, Target.

Click farms

To generate significant impressions and clicks before automation, fraudsters would go to a cost-saver country, employ a couple of hundred people and have them click away for days. These aren’t so popular these days, since bots are cheaper than people.

Botnets

From a scale perspective, the adtech industry is most worried about ‘botnets’. Botnets are generally created by offshore organisations involved in highly sophisticated malware development. Like viruses, they infect and take control of computers, and then drive those computers to send traffic to sites. They can also mimic highly desirable users to push prices up.

While it was initially believed that botnets were set up to primarily visit websites that had been set up solely for this purpose, a study by the US-based Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and cyber security company White Ops found differently.

“We expected to find bot-focused websites with nothing but a bot audience, but out of nearly three million websites covered in the study, mere thousands were completely built for bots,” noted the ANA and White Ops report. “Most of the bots visited real websites run by real companies with real human visitors. The bots inflated the monetised audiences at those sites by 5% to 50%.”

One reason legitimate sites experience bot traffic is so that the bot will develop its own behavioural history and therefore look like a more valuable target and attract a higher bid price when it returns back to the fraudster’s own site.

The study estimated that advertisers globally would lose US$7.2 billion to bots in 2016. It found that fraud levels tend to increase with CPM, meaning that more expensive types of inventory, such as video, have much higher levels of fraud (ANA and White Ops, 2015, ‘The Bot Baseline: Fraud in Digital Advertising’).

In general, bot percentages are higher when there’s increased demand for traffic from advertisers. This includes at night, or the end of the week, month or quarter. The highest percentages of bots are in finance, family and food advertising, while the lowest are in technology, sport and science. DSP TubeMogul recently launched a refund scheme in which the vendor will automatically refund customers for any fraud level above 3%.

The company claims that the guarantee effectively takes fraud as an issue off the table as a concern for advertisers, and the TubeMogul customers we spoke to for this issue backed that claim up.

What marketers should do:

  • Choose your adtech vendors wisely.
  • Develop a level of trust with one or two vendors and use them, making it a case of trusting their technology. Very few smart advertisers buy from open ad exchanges any more without using a DSP. Buying directly from an open exchange is a minefield and fraud rates will definitely be higher.
  • When deciding on a DSP find one that has high bid transparency and employs or integrates with third-party verification tools.
  • Ask whether they run a tool like White Ops across inventory, and how easy it is to use your own third-party tool like Integral Ad Science or Moat.
  • Ask where they’re at with mobile, as that’s the next frontier for fraudsters.
  • The ANA’s recommendations based on its ad fraud report also suggest requiring media quality measurement vendors to demonstrate effective anti-fraud technology and provide measurement transparency.

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4. Transparency

Non-transparent business practices are pervasive in media agencies around the world.

In September 2016, as the scandal involving the overcharging of clients by media agency Dentsu spread, marketing industry bodies moved to offer guidance to members.

Dentsu will repay 230 million yen (around US$2.3 million) to clients, including Toyota. The company investigated transactions dating back to 2012, uncovering 633 suspicious cases affecting 111 advertisers.

The case has illustrated the extent to which things can go wrong in the digital advertising world and fanned flames of concern over media agency transparency. It’s not a new issue, but one made extremely hard to monitor given the scale and number of transactions that take place in digital advertising.

In October, the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) released the ‘AANA Media Contract Template’ and the ‘AANA Media Contract Guidance Notes’ to help advertisers obtain greater transparency over the return and effectiveness of their media investment.

It also partnered with law firm Bird & Bird in Australia to provide capability training on contract drafting to AANA members, as well as with Ebiquity and FirmDecisions to provide capability training to help members navigate the increasingly complex nature of media buying and contract negotiations.

The contract template has been adapted specifically for the Australian market from the version prepared by the ANA in the US.

Lion’s Matt Tapper, who’s currently chair of the AANA, says the template has been written to equip advertisers with a starting point to each element of the contract negotiation. “We believe that appropriately detailed contractual agreements, together with capability training, are the keys to achieving transparency in media buying and ensure that media buying dollars are spent with the sole objective of securing the best outcome for the brands they are promoting,” he says.

The purpose of the guidance notes is to provide advertisers with a ‘long list’ of considerations and questions that should be addressed, to reduce or eliminate non-transparent and non-disclosed practices that relate to the advertisers’ media spend.

The AANA’s release of a standardised media contract caught media agencies off guard, with some declaring the approach unworkable. Agencies argue for more collaboration between client and agency in the design of contracts.

By the end of November, the Media Federation of Australia (MFA) had come out with its own transparency framework, developed in conjunction with the AANA. It’s a single-page document listing an agreed language and set of definitions covering topics that should be discussed specifically in a media contract, such as rebates, agency commissions, value banks, agency trading desks and ethics training.

Clients want transparency. Kate Whitney, global digital director at Pernod Ricard Winemakers, has a simple message for media agencies. “We would ask that media agencies simply use client-preferred DSP software that allows the client to log in and access the buy in real time, see the plan come to life and see it optimised to their metrics any time they like,” she says.

Pernod Ricard Winemakers is one advertiser that’s recently made the move to take control of its digital media buying. “We were unaware how much control and transparency we could have internally, and how much was held with agencies,” Whitney says. “We experienced doubt when we demonstrated the opportunity at CEO level, and it took months to change.”

But change it did, and Pernod Ricard Winemakers now controls the contract with its DSP, if not the operation, utilising its DSP’s managed service offering to run things.

All parts of the ecosystem recognise that trust is vital. Shannon Fitzpatrick, trading desk commercial manager at Domain Media, says transparency is the key to building it. “This includes transparency in the cost of the media, the value of the media team’s strategic input, the resources involved in the buying process and the value of the technology that the media agency’s trading desk is using to deliver the campaign,” he says.

“Trust is earned, not bought – and education on the unique client-centric programmatic value proposition will go a long way in building that trust and retaining your clients.”

Cameron Strachan, principal solutions consultant at Oracle Marketing Cloud, recommends keeping the focus on technologies that swing towards the advertiser’s favour. “Consider that every touchpoint a customer manages is important and should be part of an overall strategy,” he says. “Campaigns must be tested and tied back to the best possible conversion metric. First-party data is queen and it must be protected at all costs. With this attitude the conversation with media partners becomes more pointed.”

What marketers should do:

  • Read up on the Mediacom scandal of 2015 to see how it can happen in Australia and with traditional media.
  • Download the AANA’s media contract and guidelines at aana.com.au/aana-media-contract and consider
    your own situation in determining whether to adopt the standardised approach.

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5. Walled gardens

Some publishers closely guard how their inventory is bought and what data is passed back to buyers.

As people consume more content across more devices, advertisers must capitalise on the fragmentation, but it often means using more and more pieces of software to do so. In some cases, this is done so that the publisher can have greater control of what the market knows about its inventory.

A ‘walled garden’ can be defined as cases when (a) inventory can’t be bought through a third party platform, and (b) the publisher doesn’t return full data back to the advertiser, so it can manage frequency and deduplication. The biggest online advertising companies in the world, Google and Facebook, each satisfy at least one of these criteria, as do many social networking sites. The only major one that satisfies both is Google.

To illustrate, let’s look at how ads are bought on YouTube. Currently, advertising on YouTube can only be bought programmatically using Google’s own DSP, DoubleClick Bid Manager (DBM). For most brands, YouTube’s a must-buy, so your choice is forced and you must use DBM. But DBM can’t access everything else, so a lot of people end up running two video DSPs: DBM for YouTube and another one for everything else.

This affects advertisers in two ways. First, data isn’t shared between DSPs, hindering optimisation of your overall buy. And second, it makes Google’s the only software you can use to buy Google’s own media, creating a conflict of interest.

Not only is data hard to aggregate across multiple DSPs, but Google’s DBM itself doesn’t return impression level information about what’s bought on Google’s YouTube. Walled gardens make it nigh on impossible for an advertiser to control frequency across their whole media plan.

But Google’s not the only one that doesn’t provide full data back to advertisers. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Pinterest all allow advertisers to buy their inventory via third-party platforms, but they don’t return perfect data back to that platform. On Facebook, advertisers can go in with a list of users to target, but Facebook won’t return that information back so that the advertiser can control frequency across its other buys.

What marketers should do:

  • Short of a big group of the world’s top companies pledging to boycott Facebook, Instagram, Google and YouTube until they open the data doors, there’s not a lot advertisers can do.
  • Bear in mind that while no DSP can give you perfect information from the aforementioned publishers, a good one will give you as much information as the publisher allows.

 

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6. Header bidding

The latest way digital publishers are maximising programmatic yield.

Currently, a publisher monetises each ad impression in a sequence called a ‘waterfall’ or ‘daisy chain’. When a page loads and an ad impression becomes available, the publisher’s ad server first checks against direct sales campaigns it has sold and asks whether the visitor’s user profile matches any of them.

If not, it sends the available impression to an exchange or an ad network. If it doesn’t sell there, it may send it to another exchange or ad network, and so on, until someone bids. Each step the ad opportunity takes down the waterfall is called a ‘pass back’. The order of the ‘waterfall’ is set by the publisher, because typically price declines as you go down.

But that’s not always true. There could be a programmatic buyer on an exchange willing to pay more for this user than any direct sales campaigns the publisher has already sold. In a waterfall, that buyer never would have had the chance to compete with the direct sales campaign.

Header bidding is, basically, a simultaneous auction between programmatic buyers and direct sales campaigns. Each time a page loads an auction takes place and all the steps of the waterfall happen together. The highest bidder gets the impression.

For publishers, it creates a more efficient auction system, which should increase the overall prices. And, of course, as the steps in a waterfall take place, the user is sitting there waiting while that happens. Header bidding eliminates pass backs and therefore that delay.

But it comes at a cost. In October 2016, MailOnline reported it had been using head bidding for two years on desktop display and had seen a 48% lift in revenue from that inventory (off an undisclosed base). Part of the weigh-up, however, is that it employs six full-time analysts in its programmatic team to monitor activity.

For advertisers, header bidding should increase access to premium inventory they weren’t previously able to buy programmatically, as direct sales would no longer get default priority on the best websites.

What marketers should do:

  • Marketers don’t need to worry about header bidding for a while. By mid- to late-2017 there’ll probably start to be more said about it in the general marketing and media press. And, given it’s a sell-side thing, there’s not much to do about it, anyway.

 

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