The Limits of Automation

Ad tech is an awfully cyclical industry. Ghosts of the past come back to haunt us all the time, whether they be ad fraud or brand safety.

Daily Beast story detailing how apps leveraging the Facebook Audience Network found themselves knee-deep in complaints about offensive ads thanks to an e-commerce company called Wish actually made me nostalgic for the age of ad networks.

Long story short, Wish decided to take advantage of Facebook’s “dynamic” ad offering, a carousel unit that allows advertisers to show multiple items from an uploaded catalog. Wish is one of Facebook’s largest advertisers—Daily Beast source Sensor Tower said the $8 billion e-commerce company dropped $100 million on the platform during the 2015 holiday season.

So for the dynamic ads, they went all in, and apparently uploaded more than 170 million products. They reportedly add an average of 9 million weekly.

These products include “triple dildo underwear” and “penis sleeve extenders.” Wish’s catalog is vast and filled with… curiosities. Odd stuff that defies description, some of which has encouraged cult followings in the form of Twitter accounts. There are plenty of products premium publishers would prefer not to see filling inventory on their websites and apps.

But despite their best efforts at wrangling Facebook’s brand safety controls, apps monetizing through FAN found some of Wish’s kinkiest wares appearing on their pages. The user complaints quickly followed.

One of the biggest lies in digital advertising is that programmatic means automatic, or that the two terms are interchangeable.

More Than a Pub Problem

On an interesting note, publishers were not the only unhappy party. Wish CEO and Founder Peter Szulczewski complained that FAN was favoring the weirdest of the weird because the algorithm was heavily optimizing to clicks. As they’re well known to do, consumers were clicking on the truly odd products out of morbid curiosity.

What a bizarre way to learn click-through rate is a meaningless metric.

But there’s a bigger takeaway: ad automation has serious limits. In the Daily Beast article, a Facebook representative claimed that the company checked all ad creative before setting it live. The same week, though, ProPublica reported on the hellacious amount of political advertising appearing on Facebook that are outright scams. ProPublica has been on a roll digging up dirt on how Facebook’s ad platform can be abused and manipulated.

In monetizing its massive scale, Facebook has leaned too far on automation, occasionally to the duress of its publisher partners and certainly to the lament of its advertisers. Premium publishers, however, can offer the far more alluring programmatic alternative.

What a bizarre way to learn click-through rate is a meaningless metric.

Programmatic ≠ Automatic

One of the biggest lies in digital advertising is that programmatic means automatic, or that the two terms are interchangeable. Programmatic advertising actually requires a good deal of human power to work well, and when it works does, the control it offers both buyers and sellers is worth the effort.

It sucks the industry spent so much time selling programmatic as “automated,” and I’m not sure why we would switch the nomenclature from programmatic to automated now. Programmatic is actually the better term, because the campaigns are not automatic or all that automated—they’re programmed.

As I’ve noted before, FAN is an ad network; even it has some flashy new tricks like a header integration, it’s a step backward in the evolution of the industry. And it seems like some brands are finally admitting frustration with the platform—possibly having some flashbacks to the bad old days when ad networks ruled digital.

Facebook has dominated mobile display because the alternatives have been lacking, both in terms of units available and transaction methods. Mobile programmatic certainly had its issues getting up to speed, but we’re quickly dawning on a new age. In addition, publishers and advertisers increasingly embracing lightweight and dynamic native units (also known as in-feed) that have allowed Facebook to flourish.

Offer Control

Publishers need to be wary of the creative that comes through FAN if they aren’t already. You should definitely consider that demand source’s priority in your stack or header compared to others.

But there’s an opportunity that goes beyond preventive. Show your advertisers not only the risks of automated platforms, but also the control that programmatic enables them on premium websites and apps. Native units enable an advertiser experience that’s pretty on point with Facebook, though with far more transparency.

It’s what advertisers are craving, even if rampant fraud has made them a bit gun-shy about the exchanges. (This is what private marketplaces and programmatic guaranteed are for!) Don’t they deserve a higher standard after all?