The Buy Side Gotta Check Itself

Last week a lot of my industry connections passed around the Buzzfeed story, “Attack of the Zombie Websites,” about a programmatic, bot-driven web of lies that may have shorted advertisers tens of millions of dollars. Although it was meticulously reported, I had a hard time reading the full article not because I found the scam so ghastly and heinous… but for the exact opposite reason.

I felt like I’d read this story before. In fact, longtime ad tech industry writer Mike Shields of Business Insider commented on a sense of déjà vu for a piece he’d written for Adweek in 2013. I had a flashback to that one too.

I joked with an industry fellow that these kinds of “AD TECH FRAUD!” articles have become the Local News Investigations of the digital media and ad tech trades. Not to say they’re useless—as Last Week Tonight With John Oliver has shown us, such reporting can be critical.

But even with the sensational music, flashy editing and lurid headlines, you can quickly see that they’ve uncovered a rinky-dink little scam (personally, I wasn’t all that impressed with the one cited in the Buzzfeed article—#methbotfan), some shady business hiding in plain sight. Most of us are unsurprised; we kinda already knew it was happening, particularly since we’ve seen it before.

Shakedowns Small and Large

I’ll give you a quick summary of the typical programmatic scam: a band of indirectly monetized publishers (read: sites that mainly monetize through open RTB auctions) are owned and operated by a “technology company” that’s serving up brand ads to bots. It’s a good question to which is easier to set up: a bot network or a bundle of “niche” domains. The “tech company” then proceeds to show off its false wares on a variety of exchanges, luring in bidders who should know better.

While the Buzzfeed piece is to be applauded for naming names of bad actors that industry people should jot down for future reference, Shields and I both want to look at the bigger picture: why does this keep happening? Why are we going to see a similar exposé next year or the year after?

Shields argues that advertisers have become obsessed with the idea of long tail—a major selling point for programmatic falsely believed by advertisers was that they could find their customers and target audiences anywhere and any time. Context no longer matters! was the rallying cry… So why pay for the privilege of premium?

You’d think the viewability, invalid traffic, and brand safety crusades of the last few years would have shaken faith in this doctrine, but no. So let’s bring another factor into the equation: agencies and their demand-side cohorts not only sold advertisers on the idea that cookie-hunting would allow them to hit their audiences regardless of context, they also promised that they would get tons and tons of inventory for super-cheap. They glossed over details about scraper sites and bot traffic and non-viewable inventory to focus their buyers on all the targeted impressions they were racking up for fractions of pennies on the dollar.

This in turn led advertisers—who were not thrilled with digital campaign “performance” such as low click-through rates—to demand more scale at lower prices in direct deals with premium publishers. If the pubs didn’t like that, well they could try and compete on the programmatic markets. After all, the advertisers were hitting their target audiences (Voice-over: Actually, they weren’t.) at great CPMs! This was the so-called programmatic race to the bottom.

The Gig Is Up?

The lies bolstering programmatic bad actors have been crumbling for a long time, yet it’s been the premium publishers who have seemingly had to pay for their sins via viewability and invalid traffic measurement—and now glorified whitelists hiding behind the banner of transparency initiatives. Not that anyone is truly innocent in digital advertising—every premium publisher has probably sourced some iffy traffic, and goodness knows how many ads were served that never had a chance at meeting a pair of eyeballs. (All ads want is to be SEEN, man!)

But still—we’re witnessing renewed focus on direct relationships between advertisers and premium publishers, whether through traditional guaranteed deals, private marketplaces, and/or programmatic guaranteed, which is typically a mixture of the first two.

Context matters once again, hurrah! Well, this has also been driven by the rise of header bidding, which made the old “spray and pray” method of targeting audiences programmatically untenable. In addition, many agencies and trading platforms are leveraging pre-bid technology that identifies bots and optimizing against viewability markers in auctioned impressions.

So why does it feel with stories like Buzzfeed’s that we’re witnessing a little history repeating? These latest malfeasants (Why bother naming the “companies” involved? It’s soon to be lost to the annals of the Internet) will likely be replaced by new rapscallions in short time… unless there are larger shifts in the industry.

  1. The buy side needs to stop viewing the programmatic channels as fishing holes for cheap inventory. The race to the bottom was canceled by header bidding. Advertisers need to view programmatic as a control lever in transactions, though if they haven’t figured out what happens when you scrape the bottom of the barrel at this point…
  2. Guess what—online inventory actually is limited! Or rather audience attention is scarce. So while you can buy a seemingly infinite amount of impressions, the number that matter is far fewer. The buy side desire for scale needs to be re-evaluated and tempered. But…
  3. True cross-channel measurement and attribution remains elusive in digital advertising. Even though they’ve proved workhorses in linear, attempts to jury-rig GRPs to digital campaigns have been disappointing. Of course, my suggested metric is engaged time, but that path is going to be long, windy, and uphill.

My fear with Buzzfeed’s latest uncovering of ad tech bad behavior is that advertisers will use it as an excuse to push even more onerous obligations on premium publishers… while they continue to give away ad spend to scammers on the programmatic markets. It’s long past time for buyers to take a hard look in the mirror.

Or another analogy, if you like—physician, heal thyself before doling out the scripts.