The Lack of Brand Safety in AdTech

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Twenty years ago I was an ad operations trafficker for Advance Internet (now Advance Digital) and found myself logged into DoubleClick, scrolling through page after page of banner ads trying to find a specific ad. I had been told that one of the owners of the company had seen an ad they found offensive on one of our sites and it was my job to root it out. There was no easy way to do it then: I simply had to visually look at hundreds of ads, trying to figure out which one was the offender. I had to repeat this process many times, often with limited success.

Fast-forward to today and there are services and technology that for the most part prevent such offensive ads or make it easier to hunt them down, but brand safety is more of an issue than it was then. One might go so far as to say it's now an existential threat to our industry.

Why? Because we don't keep good company.

Programmatic started with real-time bidding because it had to. To achieve scale, it needed buyers and sellers and it needed fluidity before the big brands, agencies and publishers could start to see that some level of automation would be needed to really get the budgets flowing. Programmatic couldn't have started with private marketplace deals as the primary transaction format.  Digital would have starved to death waiting for things to happen.

But with the open exchange model came some bad actors. Malvertisers. Bot-wielding fraudsters. Fake news sites. The lack of quality in the inventory being bought and sold brought us verification and viewability vendors who have shed a light on just how bad things can be.

This has resulted in several wake-up calls. Ad blocking. Marc Pritchard from P&G's speech at the IAB. Voting in the U.S. and U.K., where fake news was certainly a factor. (Current digital advertising practices not only threaten the future of digital media but democracy itself.)

"It's time we fessed up," said Mary Keane-Dawson, former Managing Director U.K. at Neo@Ogilvy, on a panel I moderated at the Brand Safety Summit in London. "We are going to lose everything if we don't address these issues."

The analogy I often use is of a mall (I am from New Jersey) with high-quality clothing stores sharing space with sketchy retailers selling knock-off products. The mall owners care, but financially benefit from there being more stores than just quality merchandisers. Consumers recognize quality but often find themselves wandering around looking for a deal. They know/expect to get lower quality or even ripped off. By the way, they even think less of the high-quality stores for being there.

From a publisher's perspective, there is no way to keep bad actors off the Internet -- but they may want to consider with whom they do business. Part of the answer I feel lies in what Eric Picard labels "privileged programmatic": Making private marketplaces work for premium buyers and sellers to transact at scale and relegating the open exchange to direct-response advertisers.

Taking the step of identifying the players and the pieces of the transactions will help publishers and brands. Initiatives like DigiTrust, TAG and Ad-ID will bring a new level of transparency on who is involved. Couple that with Blockchain and you might make fraud too expensive to commit. (You can download Jack Myers' whitepaper on Blockchain below.)

Another step is looking at content recommendation companies -- namely, if the short-term gain of revenue is worth the long-term cost. Using my mall analogy, this is a high-end retail store selling knockoff products next to their own. A commercial director for a large publisher confessed that the Taboolas and Outbrains of the world are, in his words, "crack."  If publishers only steer toward such companies to drive up revenues without addressing brand safety concerns they will find the same fate as many a crack addict. There is no reason Taboola and Outbrain or a similar company can't provide a more brand-safe solution.

Lastly, publishers have to bundle audience with context. Marketers want to reach consumers in quality environments, but it's cheap to reach those consumers on the open market, so they often put quality concerns aside. Publishers have to stop making it so easy. Poor data policies and thoughtless audience extension (buying impressions on the open exchange on behalf of clients) only allows marketers to further focus on audience and not on quality interactions.

The good news is that some of the wake-up calls have started to actually wake us up. Publishers alone cannot solve the brand safety effort, but I think it's incumbent for them to start and to lead the charge. We are the company we keep, and there is too much quality content being created to lose it all.

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