Death to Invisibility: A Case for Increased Inventory Transparency for Display Advertising

Despite a troubling economic climate for the advertising industry as a whole, 2010 is poised to be a banner year for online display advertising. Courtesy of a host of innovative data driven targeting innovations from companies like BlueKai and eXelate we can increasingly deliver on the promise of the “right consumer at the right time.”  But what about the “right place”—one that conforms to the basic terms of a client’s standard IO regarding such issues as proximity to content like hate speech, violence, drug usage, etc?  Despite great results from this new generation of data driven targeting, digital media continues to command little more than 5% of all brand dollar spending. And 67% of major brands polled by e-consultancy say that the number one reason that they are not investing more in digital is a lack of source level transparency (and frankly trust) regarding their ability to control where their ads are being served.

Complete source level transparency enables brands and agencies to determine the exact, page-level location of where their advertising will appear. It also provides networks and publishers with the capability to manage campaigns more effectively and adhere to I/O requirements. Currently the levels of source level transparency vary widely across the online display market, from fully transparent inventory to non-transparent inventory. The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is leading the charge to raise awareness of the varying levels of transparency and address the issues surrounding the inventory lacking source-level transparency. Fully transparent inventory is inventory for which a network or exchange provides the URL of the actual location of the ad with each ad call in either real time or via a site list. Partially transparent inventory is inventory for which the network or exchange provides a representative list of some of the sites on which ads will run.  Non-transparent inventory is inventory for which a network or exchange does not provide any information on where an ad will run, nor provides a site list.

There are clear business drivers for accepting inventory with no source level transparency. Key to the display advertising promise is inventory liquidity.  High liquidity or the availability of large pools of easily bought and sold inventory, enables real-time buying and allows inventory to be combined with data bundles to create highly targeted messages. But because of the fragmentation of publishers and networks, sufficient liquidity can often only be created through “daisy-chaining” or inter-network reselling of inventory. Under the current display model, this inter-network reselling is a healthy necessity to give adequate scale to display’s strategic value. Lack of source level transparency, however, is a toxic side effect of this reselling and one which threatens to limit the success of display as a whole.

To understand the implications that acceptance of inventory without source level transparency will have on the online display market, one must consider the issue through the eyes of a brand marketer. Brand marketers’ mass adoption of display advertising will be the channel’s ticket to success. Brand marketers are the stewards of entities that have been built, in many cases over decades, through carefully constructed associations, messages and placements. For brand marketers, buying impressions on inventory which is not transparent equates to one thing: a potential threat to deface and devalue their brand. Without a definitive understanding of the source of the page on which they (or their agency) are placing their ad, a display impression transforms from a brand building initiative into a potentially brand destructive force. Brands and their agencies must have the same confidence in the security and safety of the display channel as they expect from other advertising channels if it is ever to garner more than a few percentage points of media spend.

The display adverting industry as a whole is facing tipping point regarding the acceptance of inventory lacking source level transparency. These issues surrounding non-transparency are real and limiting the growth of the industry for all participants. However, utilizing certain technologies and strategies can help support an industry-wide push to increased source-level transparency. Below are some strategies we at AdSafe have developed through our client partnerships which can contribute to a push towards increased source-level transparency.

  • Segment Inventory by Level of Transparency:  Many networks / exchanges deal in inventory in varying degrees of transparency. By segmenting inventory into tiers of relative transparency and only utilizing fully transparent inventory for certain brand clients, agencies, networks and exchanges can avoid the “surprises” of ad misplacements.
  • Directly Address Transparency during Client Engagement: Often contractual agreements do not expressly address the issues of relative transparency. By elevating this issue to a sales-level issue and understanding clients’ transparency concerns prior to engagement, networks / exchanges can be certain to deliver on client expectations.
  • Rate All Publisher Inventory: Utilize a third-party verification technology to rate all inventory for individual campaigns. Working with content rating and inventory vetting providers provides inventory quality assurance and eliminates many issues surrounding transparency.
  • Utilize Macros to Identify and Pass On Source URL:  When re-brokering through other ad networks, mandate they utilize their technology to pass through the source url in the ad call string.  Adopt standards with partners involved in daisychains to preserve and include source url in all server call
  • Preserve Ad-Tags from Publishers: Often publishers modify or update tags after a campaign run has begun. Establish policy that prevents the manipulation of ad-tags when contractually engaging with publishers.

These strategies can provide a significant increase in source-level transparency and, in most cases, can be leveraged without any significant effect to the ad–ops workflow. Yet, while leveraging these strategies will certainly have an impact on the present day levels of transparency, incremental steps like these will not solve the issues in the long term. We as an industry need to collaboratively agree to change our mindset that anything less than total transparency, accountably and trust is acceptable in our industry. Only by eliminating the issues surrounding non-transparent inventory and inspiring more marketer confidence in display advertising can we attract the levels of brand dollars that the industry as a whole deserves. 


David Hahn is the Vice President of Product at AdSafe, overseeing the strategy, development and management of the AdSafe’s product suite. Prior to AdSafe, David was an executive with Safenet’s digital media services group, the leading provider of digital protection and measurement services. There he was responsible for managing the group’s portfolio of digital asset protection services and transforming the portfolio to take advantage of the emerging opportunities in digital media distribution at major studios, record labels and publishers. Prior to SafeNet, David was responsible for the product management and product strategy for North America and Asia Pacific markets at MessageLabs, one of the world’s largest software-as-a-service messaging security organizations. Before MessageLabs, David ran the product management and marketing for, a consumer webmail service. David has worked with a number of startups and mature technology organizations and brings over a decade of executive product management, marketing and strategy experience to AdSafe.