A digital marketing CEO’s prescription to cure advertising fraud
As the threat of ad fraud continues to loom over digital marketers, columnist James Green lays out the ingredients we need to promote transparency and drive the industry forward.
Challenges around viewability, media metrics and transparency in the advertising inventory supply chain have festered for more than a decade, and they’ve recently hit a fever pitch. We see marketers increasingly demanding accountability for their digital media spends and looking for transparent and standard metrics to support digital advertising effectiveness. They’re fed up with ad fraud and waste in the supply chain — and so am I.
A wake-up call was issued by Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer in late January at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership meeting. Marc Pritchard, marketing leader of the world’s biggest advertiser, lambasted the digital ad industry for creating poor experiences for consumers, and highlighted media and tech giants Facebook and Google for lack of transparency on the performance of campaigns on their platforms, along with uneven inventory quality.
Pritchard asserted that he doesn’t “want to waste time and money on a crappy media supply chain” and urged the industry to fix issues his company has been demanding for over a year. Undeterred, at an Association of National Advertiser meeting in February, he took up the issue again.
When a behemoth like P&G talks, its impact as a change agent isn’t likely to be ignored. Most recently, Pritchard said Facebook and Google’s agreement to submit to audits by the Media Rating Council is not enough, and that agencies must offer more transparency around audit results.
My reaction to Pritchard’s charges? Good for him — and for us. The more we all rally around change in a complicated and fast-moving industry, the better.
Here’s another smoldering issue: Brand marketers’ ads are increasingly being served up on inflammatory media websites like Breitbart News. There is a striking lack of, or ineffectiveness of, safeguards for brands that need to know where their ads are running. Marketers want their ads running in “brand-safe” and contextually relevant environments, but when buying ads on open exchanges, there are no guarantees where the ads will run.
According to a New York Times article, investment advisory firm Vanguard was clued into its ads showing up on Breitbart, not by its advertising agency but by a client. Not exactly the kind of call Vanguard was hoping for.
As CEO of a company with a marketing platform for ad, email and site personalization, I’ve had a front-row seat to these issues as they’ve unfolded in our industry. I’ve also experienced endless “the buck stops with me” moments while trying to face head-on the challenges of this complex industry.
So, here’s my “prescription” to move us forward:
Ingredient One: What’s our version of the Lemon Law?
If you’ve ever bought a car and encountered persistent problems caused by the manufacturer, you’re likely familiar with a law on the books in the US called the “Lemon Law.” This legislation is intended as a remedy for purchasers who, by no fault of their own, purchased a defective product.
I am not proposing a Lemon Law per se, but a way to legitimately address a brand’s concern over paying for a “defective” advertising campaign (i.e., you shouldn’t pay for an ad that isn’t seen). Instead, the advertising industry hides behind the “contractual clause” excuse or complicated jargony explanations Pritchard rails against.
Specifically, sellers of media need to be responsible for the ads they sell, and that should trickle down from the top to the bottom of the value chain. Thus, if I sell an inappropriate ad impression to an agency or brand, they shouldn’t pay for it. But if I bought that impression from an ad exchange, then I shouldn’t pay for that impression. And then, of course, the ad exchange shouldn’t pay the original seller.
That is not how it works today. If I buy an ad, and an agency says it’s not viewable, I don’t get the revenue, and I still pay for the purchase, which means the seller still makes money. When the seller is selling fraud, that’s just not right, and it encourages more bad behavior.
Ingredient Two: Be our own change agents and agree to universal standards
When I look at what’s happening around the world and here in the US as people vie for change, I see action, not talk. Grassroots initiatives are popping up everywhere to push for change.
In politics, we see people putting a stake in the ground defining non-negotiable issues. More people are preparing to run for local or state elected office having never served before. Indeed, we have a president who was elected at least in part because millions of people felt forgotten and wanted a revolution rather than more of the same.
I’m hoping that we’ll see similar enthusiasm in our industry. We should be the ones to drive change, not be driven by it. This needs to start with agreeing to viewability standards, rather than opining on why they won’t work.
P&G is adopting the MRC standard. It may not be perfect, but it’s a start. Our industry has evolved dramatically over decades — and so can our standards, so long as we define them.
Ingredient Three: Consensus-driven industry guidelines and individual ethics
We need consensus-driven industry guidelines and must adhere to an “honor code” of sorts to responsibly regulate ourselves within the industry. Every person, no matter what function or title, can live up to this honor code.
What stops one from making an unethical choice? Generally, it’s our individual moral compass.
For example, our company sees and uses data on the way people behave and engage, but we made the decision not to collect data on medical status or history, or any personally identifiable financial information. It’s reasonable to think there are companies that could utilize this data, but we don’t believe it is ethically appropriate. This is in line with IAB guidelines.
I am reminded of the Charles Dickens novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and its most famous line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was, of course, the age of wisdom and “the best of times,” and yet at the same time it was the age of foolishness, “the worst of times.”
We are lucky to be in an industry that reaps the benefits of imagination and rigor of data science. As an industry, we have come so far and have many great advancements ahead of us.
We need a cure that encompasses industry-wide reform, or future foolishness will win out.