Skimming through daily ad tech news alerts, or merely taking a peek at the agenda of countless ad tech conferences around the world, one might get the impression that digital marketing is currently under siege.
Ad blockers are diminishing the overall size of the pie, brand safety and viewability scores are continuously questioned, and any attempts to force even minimal transparency amongst ad exchanges and agencies seems like a losing battle.
Most importantly, ad fraud, or what some refer to as ‘non-human traffic’, is often perceived as an incurable virus, infesting larger parts of our industry. What many perceive as a threat is used by others as a sales instrument, and it pays to consider what our real problems are as an industry.
On the one hand, it’s not uncommon to overhear ad tech peers venting about the status quo. They declare that ‘all those companies who think they can solve ad fraud are a bloody hoax’ (truth be told, stronger words are sometimes used). Then again, we’re regularly exposed to snazzy presentations that contain bold statements vouching for tools with 100% viewability or 0% ad fraud, usually within the first three slides.
Where does this discrepancy come from? Is it merely a matter of perception?
Firstly, marketing and sales departments certainly play their roles. Ad tech businesses have realised that every problem is an opportunity. As a result, ad exchanges, publishers and even some buyers claim to have found the one secret recipe to solving ad fraud, viewability, or another hot buzzword of today’s ad tech news. Meanwhile, many advertisers (who are often the group most exposed to such claims) usually only skim the surface when it comes to absorbing just how complex ad tech’s issues are. All parties must understand that claiming to have a 100% solution to ad fraud is akin to bragging about having the only house with a heater whilst a storm is blowing all the roofs off.
Second, the complexities above beget more complexities. Consider the rise of content verification and anti-fraud companies in the last five years. To a certain extent, their efforts help. Many of these merely serve as an insurance label for ad tech companies with the sole purpose of setting advertisers at ease. This happens in spite of a collective inability to offer bulletproof solutions that save advertisers money. Indeed, “clean advertising” companies help minimise the damage, but they are far from curing the virus.
Finally, our industry is plagued by a conflict of interest. I believe some companies act in the best interests of advertisers by trying to maximise their return in honest and straightforward ways. However, other players in the ad tech field (mostly exchanges) tend to be driven by maximising profit rather than sustainable partner management. As a result, they simultaneously encourage dubious partners for short-term gains and open up loopholes for fraudsters to enter the ecosystem. Complex ad server structures and daisy-chaining make it easy for pirates to infest the entire industry.
It’s no secret that ad fraud is an omnipresent topic in our industry. However, instead of individually bragging about having found the Holy Grail, it’s time our industry accepts that it takes collaboration to combat the threats that have emerged out of our incredibly convoluted ecosystem. Only then will fraudsters be hindered from abusing the complexity of media trading.
Industry leaders need to combine their resources and, more importantly, establish rules to form an effective opposition against these sophisticated bad eggs that operate on a global scale. In essence, we need leading companies to share the patterns they see, populate fraudulent traffic sources and share best practices to fill the loopholes of our ecosystem and, crucially, keep them filled.
Many companies are already investing great amounts of R&D resources to protect advertiser dollars, but it will take industry-wide cooperation to win this fight once and for all. At Sociomantic we have looked to improve our technical infrastructures over several years to help advertisers steer clear of buying non-human impressions. But, we’re also wholly aware that sharing and learning from within our industry will only help us become even more sophisticated.
It has to be everyone’s ethical responsibility to pool critical information to push out the shockingly meticulous, yet aggressive and professional activities of fraudsters all over the world. At the same time, colourful sales decks, blind trust in anti-fraud vendors and greed for short-term cash will only serve to further dilute our perception. Until this industry collaboration takes place, the health and transparency of our ecosystem will only suffer even more.