Bringing much-needed transparency to RTB
Real-time bidding (RTB) is great for scale and efficiency, but it can come with risks for brand image, as recent developments have highlighted. Columnist Alex Bornyakov discusses these risks and explores whether it is possible to increase transparency in this programmatic channel.
Controversies involving YouTube are nothing new, but when well-known brands including Walmart and PepsiCo start boycotting the platform, it’s clearly time to sit up and take notice.
Many brands have pulled ad campaigns from Google-owned YouTube following revelations their ads were being served alongside extremist or offensive content. Not only is poor ad placement bad for brand image, it also provides revenue for content creators; in other words, brands are unintentionally funding bigotry, racism and terrorism. The automated real-time bidding (RTB) environment YouTube uses to place ads is taking some of the blame for the situation, with advertisers now demanding increased transparency into where their ads appear.
So, is RTB worth the risk for brands, and is it possible to increase transparency in this programmatic channel?
With the negative reports around RTB and open exchanges, you might wonder why any advertiser would choose to transact via this channel. The simple answer is that RTB provides unprecedented scale and efficiency, which non-biddable environments have so far been unable to achieve. Advertisers can reach thousands of publisher websites with only a fraction of the administrative hassle and contractual obligations of direct deals. When this is added to the flexibility and precise targeting capabilities of programmatic, using an RTB-based open exchange is a very attractive prospect for brands looking to gain the maximum return on their marketing budgets.
The real-time nature of RTB does bring an element of uncertainty, especially on vast platforms such as YouTube, where new content is continually uploaded and is therefore difficult to monitor. Google has already come under fire for its attempts to increase brand safety and remove ads from potentially offensive YouTube content, as these efforts have inadvertently penalized credible content creators — illustrating that algorithms simply can’t keep everybody happy.
The inherent risk in RTB has led advertisers to shift their budgets toward non-RTB programmatic direct models, such as private marketplaces, in an attempt to gain more transparency into where their ads are being placed and regain control over brand safety. In fact, eMarketer predicts less than half (44 percent) of programmatic display dollars will be spent via RTB this year — though with total US programmatic spend expected to reach almost $33 billion, that is still a sizable amount.
When deciding which programmatic model to use, marketers must weigh the enormous benefits of RTB and the open exchange against the potential fallout from a brand safety breach. Depending on their product and brand values, some may feel this compromise is justified, while others may not. Many advertisers choose to use a platform that combines multiple programmatic models such as open RTB and private deals to get the best of both worlds.
But just because there is an intrinsic risk in RTB, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to limit the chances of brand safety breaches, and there are plenty of ways we can increase transparency into where ads are placed.
Google has already committed to changes that will “give brands more control over where their ads appear,” including tightening default brand safety settings so advertisers have to opt into ambiguous content categories, simplifying the process for preventing ads appearing on specific websites or channels, and providing enhanced controls for advertisers to fine-tune ad placement preferences. It also pledged to improve reporting to further increase transparency into where ads are running.
Other tech providers must also take steps to ensure their solutions continue to provide increased visibility into the processes behind RTB and programmatic. For instance, the emergence of header bidding has enabled increased transparency, but as header-bidding technology moves server-side to resolve latency issues, developers must ensure this level of clarity is retained, and even enhanced.
Programmatic platforms should incorporate brand safety tools, from basic keyword lists and risk category filters to more advanced solutions specifically designed for video which look at visual frame content and audio tracks to analyze the context of content. They should also be open to third-party verification, which provides independent validation of where ads are appearing, for how long, and in what context.
In addition to technological advances, education around brand safety has a key role to play. Advertisers need to determine what constitutes a safe context for their specific brands and understand how to avoid placements that could threaten brand image. The definition of a safe impression varies greatly by brand and would look very different for a company that provides home insurance, for instance, than for a business specializing in extreme outdoor adventures.
While the revelations around YouTube advertising have pushed transparency in programmatic into the media limelight, it is not a new issue; advertisers have pushed to secure additional control over how their ad dollars are spent for some time. The World Federation of Advertisers reports satisfaction among its members around the level of programmatic transparency is already increasing significantly for both agency and independent trading desks, which is an encouraging trend.
Google may not feel it now, but the latest YouTube controversy is actually a positive development. It is forcing the digital advertising industry to face up to brand safety concerns and to provide greater transparency, not only in RTB, but across all programmatic models.