The Supply Side’s Next Market Opportunity: Accountability

by Will Doherty, Senior Director of Business Development

There is just one path forward for the sell side of digital advertising: total accountability.

As fraud persists and the call to combat it grows louder, fraud has somehow become a buy-side problem. It’s not. Buyers didn’t source and broadcast fraudulent inventory – suppliers did. Quality and transparency are supply-side problems. In order to move forward, suppliers and publishers must be accountable for the impressions they allow into the market. “Buyer beware” is not a strategy for a mature marketplace. Suppliers need to become arbiters of quality, not just scale.

Accountability has never been more important. It comes at a time when the attention on fraud has never been higher. Recently we’ve seen several major players in ad tech get hammered for being complicit about selling questionable inventory. In some very highly publicized instances, buyers who thought they were reaching target consumers on premium publisher sites found a shocking number of counterfeit sites scattered throughout their buys.

Accountability in programmatic comes in three pieces: scrutability behind the buy, the implementation of new protocols around the buy and good data insights into the buy. There are real efforts underway to bring all three of these elements into play in 2015, which will collectively help beat back the shadow of fraud.

Scrutability allows buyers to invest in programmatic without fear of an unchecked flow of inventory into the exchanges. This piece involves players in the ad verification space and a variety of industry associations. The IAB, 4As and ANAs recently launched a new cross-industry compliance organization, the Trustworthy Accountability Group, aimed at combating ad fraud, malware and other inventory challenges. Standardizing scrutability is a logical and key legal component in erasing fraud.

New protocols introduce criteria to the inventory that clarifies who the seller actually is, in spite of what is suggested by the domain name. Industry leaders are beginning to work with their buyers and competitors to develop new protocols in the bid stream, so buyers can link domain info to seller info, ensuring that fraudulent players cannot hide behind whitelisted domains. In many cases of fraud, those domains are spoofed to funnel dollars into fake websites or bot traffic. This puts a heavy onus on the exchanges to make sure their onboarding protocols are tight so bad actors cannot find easy entrance into the exchanges.

The third piece involves equipping both buyers and sellers with data to illuminate programmatic transactions. Buyers right now simply aren’t in a position to be proactive about what’s coming through the pipes, such as distinguishing between a quality impression from a real consumer-viewing premium publisher site vs. a counterfeit site posing as a premium publisher, or what is an ad farm populated by bot traffic. Buyers know the supply side is in the right place to monitor the publishers and networks they work with in order to prevent junk inventory from getting into exchanges. There’s pressure from the buy side to bring forth the data that will help separate quality from junk inventory, and sellers increasingly have the tools to do this.

We often hear that the digital advertising marketplace needs to be “self-policing,” and, in a very real way, it is. Buyers vote with their dollars. They will move spending from sellers that are known to work with shady partners and invest that money elsewhere. No legitimate seller wants to see that happen to its own business. Buyers vote with their dollars, and sellers want to demonstrate they’re worthy of that vote. As buyers ask tougher questions about where their money is going, sellers will have to answer honestly.

With the IAB’s cooperation and from sellers’ own initiatives, the industry at large is rising to the occasion as the call for transparency grows louder. And with sellers doing all they can to root out fraud before it hits the market, these changes will echo throughout the digital ecosystem in 2015, producing more accountability for sellers and value for buyers.

The Publisher’s Guide To Domain Spoofing

by Andrew Casale, VP Strategy

Commonly and with little difficulty, bad actors are defrauding the digital marketplace. They’re playing tricks to make exchanges think they’re selling inventory from reputable, premium publishers – often at bargain basement rates – when in fact the domain name offering the inventory provides only junk, creating problems for everyone in the business.

We’re not talking about bot fraud here. It’s called domain spoofing. The underlying impressions and users are real. The issue involves taking an undervalued asset – a leaderboard on a torrent site, for example – and masquerading it as a premium asset, such as that same leaderboard appearing on a first-tier news site.

When this topic comes up, discussion normally focuses on how domain spoofing harms the buy side. It inundates programmatic buys with junk inventory, throws off KPIs, violates the implied security of whitelists and effectively steals budgets from marketers. But in reality, the process damages digital publishers similarly.

While some publishers today struggle with bottom lines, bad actors take millions of dollars out of the marketplace on the backs of their namesakes. If a genuine impression costs $10 and a fake one costs $1, and both bear the same premium publisher domain name, the $1 impression will siphon budget away from the rightful publisher’s wallet.

Furthermore, when the buyer realizes they’ve bought a bad impression, they might not realize they have been duped. They could simply blame and punish the credible publisher, removing domains from whitelists or applying them to blacklists. It’s a scary thought, but in practice it’s reasonable to imagine it happens every day.

Why It Happens

Why is domain spoofing so pervasive? Let’s start with the presupposition that marketers and agencies hold established, premium publishers in high esteem. Experienced marketers know these publishers are suitable places for their brands to appear, so they place premium publishers on whitelists.

Whitelists are intended to be a strong line of defense for brand safety. They also benefit premium publishers. Domains with good reputations enjoy a wider array of brands bidding on them and higher-than-average bid prices.

Unfortunately, the reliance on whitelists also opens a door for domain spoofing. If a seller with no credibility or quality content has the option of registering their true identity, which is cheaper, vs. pretending to be someone else, who is more valuable, they will find a way to pretend. Don’t ever underestimate how clever and greedy the pretenders can be.

How It Happens

The most common methods employed by domain spoofers fall into two categories. The first method involves “manufactured” impressions enabled by malware that individual users accidentally install on their computers. The malware injects ads into websites the user normally views. If a user is browsing The New York Times website, malware can inject an ad of its own atop the website, put the ad out for bid in an exchange, identify the user as being on the Times’ site and sell the ad for an unbeatably low price that’s naturally highly desirable to a buyer. But the ad should never have been delivered to the user’s computer in the first place because it comes from the malware, not the Times.

The scary part about this method is it can be very hard to detect these junk impressions, and just as difficult to tell exactly how pervasive and damaging they are, even using verification techniques. The user is real and they’re actually on a premium publisher site, but the price of the inventory is often far out of whack and the money never reaches the intended publisher.

The second method involves bad actors modifying markups in ad tags to reflect any domain they want. When you’re a publisher working with an exchange, the exchange gives you an ad tag that contains code to identify the domain the user is on. Exchanges trust that their markup is accurate but the code can be deleted and replaced with a static domain identifier, enabling bad actors to impersonate anyone. All they need to do is alter a bit of code and start trading. We often see this used by piracy sites to avoid blacklists. Buyers routinely blacklist piracy sites because they don’t want to risk associating their brands with piracy. The problem is that piracy sites have countered by modifying ad tags to present themselves as something other than what they truly are.

How To Stop It

Domain spoofing is so prolific because programmatic today primarily relies on domain names to infer trust.

Publishers have the power to start addressing this practice both meaningfully and proactively by monitoring and protecting their identities. To do this, a publisher can retain the services of a DSP, as many already do through their own audience extension efforts, and direct a campaign to only bid on their domain portfolio. If they see their domains in exchanges where they know they’re not doing business, it’s time to pull in the legal team and start sending letters. This will put pressure on exchanges to think about how they can better avoid unwanted spoofers.

Another solution to spoofing that I’ve spoken and written about involves moving away from our overreliance on domains as a key of trade by introducing payee IDs. This entails developing an updated model where in order for an impression to be placed for bid by an exchange, the exchange must disclose not just the domain name connected to it but also the name that will actually show on the seller’s paycheck. The introduction of this simple criterion would address and curtail fraud before, not after, the buy. For example, you could amend a whitelist by listing “The New York Times Company” – the name that would appear on a check – instead of “nytimes.com,” which could be spoofed.

It Takes A Village

Just recently, the 4As and ANA agreed to join the IAB to form a new cross-industry compliance organization to help combat ad fraud, malware and other challenges holding back the industry. Representing different stakeholders across the purchase funnel, these trade groups are coming together to ensure greater transparency around who is getting paid and who is doing the paying. Right now, there are no hoops and no barriers to entry. Some sort of certification program will be inevitable, but what form it takes and how it will manifest has yet to be determined.

Ultimately, we need to think about new industrywide protocols to prevent fraud, rather than catch it in the act. In the interim, we need to take action to stop getting played. Publishers can identify the exchanges where they are and aren’t selling and police their own identities. Until we see the implementation of new industrywide protocols, these practices will help ensure media dollars intended for credible publishers rightfully make it there.

Programmatic Video Is Just Hitting Its Stride

by Brad Jeffrey, Platform Services Manager

What 2014 event or trend had the biggest impact on your business?

Without a doubt, private marketplaces that are enabled programmatically on behalf of our publishers via the deal ID protocol. We’ve seen a substantial shift in how real time bidding budgets are being spent by many of our Canadian publishers this year. I think both buyers and sellers see the value in establishing and maintaining direct one-to-one relationships.

As more dollars shift to RTB and inventory quality continues to present challenges within the industry, the importance of one-to-one relationships has never been stronger in our ecosystem.

What buzzword should stay in 2014?

“The year of mobile” – I don’t think there was an industry event I attended this year where that joke wasn’t made. Hopefully we can finally lay to rest the year of mobile, whatever year it was.

How has your team changed the most in the past year?

The biggest change has been the sheer growth of the team. As programmatic continues to represent more and more meaningful budget for publishers, their needs are increasing. In order to help meet the growing needs of our publisher clients, we’ve made a big push this year in growing our publisher-facing department. We’ve more than doubled in size since January and added roles within a new division of the company, such as exchange analysts who dive deep into the bid-level data across our exchange and create custom-pricing strategies for publishers to maximize revenue.

What are the top things those in the Canadian media business need to be paying attention to as we head into 2015?

Programmatic – it is here to stay: The buying model is going to represent an increasingly large share of media dollars in Canada for not only 2015 but years to come. The way media is being acquired is fundamentally changing.

Fraud: It’s real and it’s a problem for as long as we allow it to be. I think the industry trade associations are all working with their respective membership bases on action plans to stamp it out of the market. I hope 2015 will be the year we reverse its growth so that we can start moving on to more interesting topics.

Programmatic video is poised for an even bigger break-out year: At present, most publishers are selling out their video assets through direct sales so there is rarely any inventory left to be monetized through an exchange, but technology is providing a solution to that problem. Now publishers can make that sold-out video media accessible to programmatic, which has enabled programmatic to “bid up” the price of media.

One of the reasons this is important to publishers is because it will allow them to take advantage of spikes in volume. For example, if there is a major news story, that will trigger a spike in volume which could fulfill directly sold campaign impression goals. Having a video programmatic solution in place can help publishers monetize those sudden or unexpected surges in traffic.

What is your prediction for the trend that will shape the media business in 2015?

Fraud continues to be a hot topic in the online ad ecosystem. While I don’t think ad fraud will ever be 100% prevented – just like credit card fraud or identity fraud – I predict that the industry will take a major step in reducing the percentage of media dollars lost to it in the year ahead.

A Better Programmatic Supply Chain Will Root Out Fraud

by Andrew Casale, VP Strategy

Fraud in the programmatic ad business is a systemic problem that’s robbing the legitimate marketplace of hundreds of millions of dollars, but to date we’ve seen no concrete steps to address the core of the issue.

It starts with reimagining the programmatic supply chain and ushering in a new era of transparency and trust.

Bad actors thrive on the sell side, primarily because today they all too easily can hide their identities. Two common strains are the creation of generic websites that generate high-volume bot traffic, and the act of spoofing domain names that clear buyers’ whitelists because they look like they belong to reputable publishers. The only punishment leveed is blacklisting, which merely resets the process again. Bad actors are not exposed and are often paid out until they are caught.

Right now the domain is the underlying criterion in a programmatic transaction. It’s what the demand-side platform targets; it’s what whitelists are based on; and it’s what blacklists aim to protect. But domains are easy to exploit (they are both easy to set up and spoof, and they proliferate quickly). It’s easy for a piracy site to go undetected by using a domain that is similar to a reputable media outlet, and it’s hard for the market to keep up.

There’s a second problem in how programmatic continues to enable blind selling, which hides the seller’s name from the buyer. This made sense years ago for publishers that wanted to cautiously “dip a toe” into the real-time bidding pool, but were skeptical about the implications for their direct sales teams. Without transparency and full disclosure into the actual company on the supply side behind any given transaction, publishers are losing potential revenue and allowing fraudulent players to hide in a forest of fake domains.

For most major publishers today, there’s no real deterrent to being so transparent. What follows is a reimagining of the protocol within the supply chain to promote that transparency. We need to trace the problem of fraud directly to the end seller. The exchange should be required to expose not just the domain name connected to it, but also the name that’s actually going to be on the seller’s paycheck. This would curtail fraud before the buy — not after. Revealing sellers to buyers will authenticate transactions and build more trust into the supply chain.

In the end, change can only come if both the buy side and the sell side come together. Marketers must be forceful in refusing to be implicated in fraudulent buys, wasting their brands’ spending. Marketers hold the purse strings, but they need to communicate to their downstream vendor partners that they need more certification and more trust in the supply chain. Publishers also need to be transparent and tell downstream vendors they’re willing to pass the test of certification. After all, they only stand to gain revenue from being transparent.

Just recently, the 4A’s and ANA agreed to join forces with the IAB in a new cross-industry compliance organization to help combat ad fraud, malware and other challenges that hold our industry back. Representing different stakeholders across the purchase funnel, these trade groups will come together to ensure that there is transparency in terms of who is getting paid and who is doing the paying. Right now there are no hoops and no barriers to entry. Some sort of certification program will be inevitable, but what form it takes and how it will be manifested has yet to be determined.

Realistically, in a mature marketplace, a publisher that wants to do business with the Fortune 100 should be certified. Going a step further, sellers could then be bonded, so that a marketer could be refunded for buying ads on fraudulent sites. The digital advertising industry often compares itself to the financial industry when explaining programmatic buying. When it comes to fraud, the two industries couldn’t be more different. It’s very hard to counterfeit a stock and easy to counterfeit a domain. The financial industry is regulated, and frankly programmatic is far too grown up to continue on its current path.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, as the programmatic supply chain remains unchanged from its youth. We can’t keep rooting out cases of fraud after the fact. Programmatic needs to overhaul its supply chain and establish an audit trail that is sorely lacking today. We can do that by demanding transparency upon entry, so we know the players sitting at the table are those who have earned the legitimacy to be there.

Dynamic Price Floors Perpetuate An Ad Stack Cold War

by Will Doherty, Director of Business Development

The jig is up. And it’s been up for a long while. It’s time to move past dynamic floors.

They simply have no place in the current programmatic ecosystem. They are shortsighted and deny publishers the opportunity to work closely with their clients – many of whom are gearing up for a programmatic-only future. You’re not simply short-changing a bidder by deploying dynamic floors, you’re hindering your ability to support accurate price discovery for buyers. If they can’t price it, they won’t buy it. More importantly, any effort to obscure the value or credibility of any given impression – to represent it as something it’s not – is deceptive.

Dynamic floors, or “soft floors,” allow publishers to create artificial market density in order to drive up the cost of a given impression. In any open exchange, buyers only expect to pay slightly more than the next highest bid. If a buyer bids $2 and the next highest bid is $1.50, most auction mechanics would sell that impression to the buyer at $1.51. When a dynamic floor is introduced into this equation, the SSP will create “phantom demand” that would price the bid at $5 as if that demand actually existed. That figure now represents the high end of the auction. But since it doesn’t exist, the SSP will sell that impression to the buyer at $2, since it is the highest bid below the dynamic floor of $5. This is an artificial price increase of nearly 33% for the buyer.

Doesn’t feel right, does it? We have turned an extremely sophisticated system that uses exponentially great numbers to determine price, develop efficient attribution schemes and respond in blindingly fast speed into something like a silent auction at the local Elks Club. It’s misguided at best. And, at worst, it’s dishonest since buyers are being led to believe that another buyer determined the price they paid, not an algorithm.

Buyers know this is happening. Many have developed features that will sniff out these floors and then bid down impressions until the real price is discovered. Many will strategically pull budget entirely, since their bidders are now tasked with sniffing out malfeasance instead of looking for efficiencies for their clients. Everyone loses in this scenario. Time and resources that could have been better spent on developing more impactful creative, a true deal ID marketplace and fighting actual fraud were spent correcting artificial obfuscation in the market.

We have to get beyond the ad tech “Cold War” and stop trying to outgun one another. It’s mutually assured obstruction.

In order for the programmatic marketplace to deliver the value both publishers and advertisers want, both will have to move away from the “best line of defense” mindset. This is especially true now of publishers. Marketers, independently of what happens in the exchanges, are moving closer to publishers on their own. Both sides want more direct, transparent and meaningful relationships, which is expressly the type of exchange programmatic infrastructure was built to facilitate. The flexibility in pricing and closing deals should be an asset embraced by both sides, using strategies that are advantageous to both and are agreed upon beforehand. That flexibility shouldn’t be used as a weapon. It’s fine for publishers to set floors for their deals, the lowest bid price they’ll accept or to choose who they will or won’t sell to – as long as it’s consistent and in the open.

As the digital marketplace progresses, publishers will need to start closing major deals with entities that manage buys around massive amounts of media. And, to do that, they’re going to need programmatic. Publishers can’t keep using dynamic floors to maximize revenue in the short run as it erodes the buyer/seller relationship when buyers find out that publishers are using them. Smart buyers know how to overcome this and their algorithms are bidding down CPMs until they hit the real floor – in effect training the dynamic floor algorithm to go lower.

Once a publisher’s inventory is trained by a bidding strategy, it becomes exponentially harder to win high CPM bids. You have trained the machines to look for an artificial efficiency. A good SSP can identify bid strategies by leveraging the entire swath of demand in the market to build a consensus pricing model. Artificial tools only perpetuate a misalignment. They correct nothing, and only hurt a publisher’s ability to extract the real value of their audience, which is often higher than any floor that could be set.

There’s no reason to perpetuate a “cold war” when we can use the same infrastructure to create customized deals that nurture lasting business relationships. Publishers can use the data in programmatic to unlock the real value of their inventory by gaining insights into how that inventory is accessed and valued. By using that data to ensure the inventory’s value matches the price they’re getting for it, publishers can create pricing strategies that give them a fairer price while reflecting what the buy side wants to pay. But the first step is getting rid of dynamic floors.

Exchange Fraud in Canada: The Simplest Solution

by Brad Jeffrey, Platform Services Manager

A report issued by the International Data Corporation (IDC) in October of 2013 projected that RTB spend in Canada would eclipse $80MM in 2014. Of that number, the percentage of ad dollars that could be going to fraudulent or deficient impressions (i.e. non-human, non-viewable) ranges from 20% to 50% (depending on who you ask). This is a scary reality and it emphasises that we have a significant problem in this industry right now that has the potential to impact the perception and growth of programmatic.

This begs the question; how do we combat this issue in Canada? Let’s first recall how we got here. What changes to the digital media landscape have enabled today’s supply side problems to flourish? Perhaps the most significant change is that we have stopped talking to each other, handing over critical control to the machines. The human element of media has always been so prominent, but is rapidly fading in the wake of automation overload. We’ve gone too far in one direction and we need the pendulum to swing closer to centre so that we can find our equilibrium.

Many of the supply problems faced today could be solved simply by promoting a return to one-to-one conversations between buyers/sellers and moving away from an over-reliance on automation. The reality is, of the $80MM RTB spend estimated by the IDC, you would be hard pressed to find a major Canadian publisher who believes they’re getting a significant share of that budget pool. If more conversations took place between major Canadian publishers and their counterparts, we would see far less money going to fraud, and the publishers who rightfully deserve the lion’s share of those media dollars would receive them. Channelling more ad spend to private exchanges ensures that brands end up with representation on quality Canadian sites as opposed to long tail US sites, next to pirated content or in a 1×1 pixel that no one ever sees.

More than ever, we’re seeing advertisers embrace private exchanges. In December, Marketing Magazine ran a story on exchange fraud in Canada which triggered a significant reaction in the marketplace. It prompted both publishers and advertisers to start asking the right questions and shortly thereafter we began to see sizable budget shifts from open to private marketplaces across our own exchange. On a broader scale, GroupM recently announced that as of 2015, almost all of their programmatic media dollars will be targeted towards private exchanges. And in June, the publisher consortium of CPAX took their inventory out of the marketplace for a voluntary period to highlight the problems in the industry. They came back to market with a revamped strategy that promotes the one-to-one connection between buyer and seller: now there is a direct relationship with every AOR, ATD and reseller within the CPAX marketplace. By teaming up together, these partners are able to offer buyers brand safe, quality inventory at scale.

We would all do well to remember that sometimes, the simplest solution is often the strongest: let’s start talking to each other again.

Why I Joined The Supply Side

by Will Doherty, Director of Business Development

For four years, I oversaw business development for a programmatic buying platform that integrated supply sources and data and third-party systems for top brands across multiple industry verticals. It was exciting work, and I loved it. The platform evolved constantly, and the work was challenging, exhausting and ultimately rewarding.

So why leave all of this?

I came to the supply side because it’s where I believe the next wave of programmatic innovation will happen. I recognized how publishers are taking the lead in innovating the next phase of the programmatic marketplace. Smart publishers have always excelled at creating the content experiences valued most by consumers, and now publishers have the tools and the understanding to make sense of their data and feed those insights back into the market.

There are so many fascinating paths publishers can take to turn data insights into valuable opportunities for brands. I want to be with them as they explore those paths. The buy side was integral in starting the programmatic revolution in the ad industry, but the sell side’s volley will be even stronger, lending depth and immense value to the marketplace.

The buy side defined the first wave of programmatic media. It evolved rapidly, but publishers largely took a more passive approach to the development of buying and selling platforms even as revenues from programmatic began to define their monetization efforts. The buy side has built an amazing foundation, but it will be up to the publishers to build the house.

This could not more important as brands look towards immersive consumer experiences that can harness the power of big data to create lasting equity with consumers. Many buy-side platforms developed core competencies around prospecting and branding. They are no longer relying on retargeting as their raison d’etre. But for branding efforts to continue to develop meaningfully, the buying platforms will need to collaborate directly with publishers, who can provide the audiences to make their marketing efforts more effective and memorable to consumers. Publisher data can elevate these ads beyond roughly relevant white noise, and into the realm of engaging brand messaging.

The modus operandi in programmatic is already experiencing its first big shift as the significance of cookies continues to decline, thanks to the proliferation of connected devices. Aided by strong Wi-Fi, consumers can access the content they want across any devices and operating systems, which renders cookies largely moot and the concept of appointment viewing impossible. In this environment, content is becoming a key proxy for audiences and their habits. Content will be the beacon for the most meaningful impressions and the highest CPMs. And buyers won’t be able to rest on their own in-house data to deliver these impressions; they’ll need publishers to provide the transparency necessary to find the audiences brands desire.

Furthermore, publishers are positioned to help buyers develop the best creative content for their ads. Creative has long been an afterthought in so many programmatic campaigns. But publishers have a unique understanding of the consumer’s experience with content. That understanding will be intrinsic in creating the most thoughtful and impactful design experiences in ad campaigns. Publishers will advise and inspire ads that go beyond standard ad units that we’re all familiar with, and that create immersive, innovative experiences for the user.

In programmatic, the pendulum is swinging in the publisher’s favor, and publishers need to embrace it. Publishers must bring their data into play to serve the programmatic marketplace. This means that instead of just focusing on the revenue their inventory can generate, they need to consider how their ads are performing with their audiences and what value those insights can deliver. This also means no more hiding domains and setting arbitrary price floors. Brands demand transparency, quality data and impact – and they are willing to pay for it. Quality content and audiences command higher prices. When publishers embrace programmatic systems and push their data into them, they will benefit from that demand. The insights only publishers can provide will change programmatic, for the better, and for everybody.

The buy side in programmatic has evolved rapidly, and the entire industry is the better for it. But now that it has established a tried and true framework for delivering results to its clients, the supply side will pick up the baton and lead programmatic to its next peak. This is why I joined the supply side, and why the supply side is the most exciting and, as I see it, the most impactful place to be.