Pushing the Malvertising Battle Upstream

Publisher, you can be forgiven if you have stared down an inbox full of angry user emails—all lambasting the latest redirect outbreak on your site or app—and thought to yourself, “Why me?”

When it comes to malvertising, it’s easy to forget that the publisher is a victim too. Its placement and property has been violated, causing a major blight in user experience. In addition, it’s been betrayed: the publisher has been let down by its trusted demand partners, which let garbage creative slip through their gates to land on a site or app.

But rather than simply suffering the indignity of serving malvertising, the publisher also bears the brunt of user blame over poor experience because it’s the last stop for an advertisement. Low-quality ad creative sullies the reputation of publishers while SSPs, DSPs, and other demand sources shrug their shoulders and walk away unscathed. In fact, many of them are actually raking in revenue from junk creative.

However, times are changing as publishers cull demand partners in the hunt for unique demand. AdWeek lately reported that Havas slashed its number of exchange partners from 40 to somewhere in the single digits within a year—while that’s dramatic, it’s no anomaly. Increased supply path optimization (SPO) on both the buy and sell sides means that SSPs must better cater to premium publishers to ensure they’re part of the preferred supply chains.

To become better strategic partners with premium publishers, SSPs are investing in more aggressive ad quality controls, including real-time creative blocking. A demand source allowing too much malvertising through increasingly risks getting turned off to never get turned back on.

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Communication Breakdown

“Sometimes I think the angry emails I send to demand partners are just a creative writing exercise for my own mental health,” comments Legacy.com’s Connie Walsh on relaying malvertising episodes up the chain.

Users aren’t the only ones sharing their outrage over redirect assaults. Publishers attempt to push the conversation upstream to their SSP partners, but systemic issues ultimately aren’t being addressed.

An SSP account manager only has so many levers of control available—sure, he or she may be able to identify and shut off single sources of low-quality ads, but malvetisers are fast-moving targets, constantly shifting tactics and execution points.

This also presents a challenge to publishers—sure, they may think they’re shielding themselves by veering away from resellers and long-tail demand sources, but malvertising and low-quality creative can come through any of their partners. Scammers optimize their malvertising campaigns in a way that will seem awfully familiar to programmatic buyers.

This has led publishers to embrace on-page, real-time creative blocking in addition to creative scanning and other ad-quality tools. But blocking should be a final countermeasure, not a shield that publishers whole-heartedly lean on.

Worse, blocking can encourage publishers to “set it and forget it” and not relate details about low-quality creative to their demand partners. Killing this feedback loop further places the security onus on publishers’ back when it should be an ecosystem-wide effort to cut out bad actors.

It’s in publishers’ best interest for SSPs to step up their fight against low-quality creative… and its increasingly also in SSPs’.

The Call to Block

Most SSPs do offer a level of quality control via in-house tech and creative scanning, but the redirect plague of the last few years shows that is not enough. SSPs need greater visibility into what’s happening on the client side, and real-time creative blocking can assist here.

Current third-party blocking solutions have a baseline technology that can be easily modified from an on-page focus. Indeed, fast-adapting blocking technology is a must for a provider as malvertisers quickly adjust to prevention measures—another reason why an SSP should consider leveraging a third-party blocker and sticking to core competencies. (Aren’t there enough other challenges facing your average independent SSP these days?)

Real-time insight into bad creative—as well as troublesome DSPs and buyers—enables SSPs to react quickly, and potentially limit negative revenue effects for itself and publishers while preserving end-user experience.

“It’s the supply side platform’s role in the ecosystem to keep our publishers and buyers safe. In implementing the same type of real-time solutions to keep our publishers safe from bad creative as we have to keep our buyers safe from fraud, we’re just following that instinct,” says Adam Schenkel, SVP of Commercial Development at GumGum. “We’ve always conducted human reviews of creative, but server side tech has allowed us to become way more efficient at delivering peace of mind to publishers.”

But perhaps more important, blocking imbues publishers and SSPs with the data to confront and increasingly put pressure on the true sources of malvertising: DSPs, and particularly the self-serve variety.

The self-serve DSP is not inherently evil; it’s quite a useful tool that offers enormous scale to buyers big and small, truly democratizing the programmatic space. However, this leaves them vulnerable to exploitation—hyperscale tends to be accompanied by giant security gaps. An unsecure self-serve DSP may not even verify business addresses and only ask for a credit card.

For too long, DSP ad quality control has been limited, and there’s been no accountability for the malvertising campaigns that spew forth. Perhaps there are screening processes, but creative can be changed last minute, a favorite scam from the earlier majority IO period.

Enhanced ad quality tools allow SSPs to illuminate crooked demand chains and better challenge their partners that are enabling bad creative. They’re essential elements in cleaning up the programmatic ecosystem and giving advertising a better reputation when it comes to user experience.

SPO Opens a Door

This all sounds well and good, but what will actually drive adoption of ad quality tools up the chain? While ultimately they should drive more revenue for SSPs, ad quality and real-time blocking appear as upfront costs with little near-term ROI—not a great look when SSPs are scraping to keep their margins up.

Publishers have an unheralded moment to effect change. The header bidding revolution encouraged publishers to sign up with a variety of demand partners for what at the time seemed like a cornucopia of bidding.

But now that bidding is turning from “spray and pray” to more strategic (those QPS costs add up!), demand has consolidated even as programmatic spend increases. Buyers want to optimize supply chains, and are increasingly leveraging private marketplaces to ensure not only premium inventory but also high-quality audiences and viewability.

Publishers realize they’re not getting unique demand from a dozen or more partners, and header latency issues are suddenly more concerning. So which to cull?

“It’s clear that the industry is consolidating, meaning that publishers are going to have greater influence over how the ecosystem operates,” adds Schenkel. “Now that real-time creative blocking tech is available, I think that we’ll start seeing publishers mandate that platform partners provide it. In the next 18 to 24 months, I expect most top tier publishers in the world to expect supply vendors to offer the kind of safeguards that we’re offering with our Ad Lightning partnership.”

Supply path optimization forces SSPs to put their best foot forward to the buy and sell sides alike—and ad quality controls could be a huge differentiator. Premium publishers are in the position to demand high-quality ad-quality offerings from their SSPs to be kept in their good graces.

Potentially this could include the ability to block inventory from self-serve DSPs as a line of malvertising protection. As publisher cachet continues to rise in the SPO age, catering to their needs only increases in import.

Just because DSPs and SSPs are putting their guards up doesn’t mean publishers should abandon their defensive posts like creative blocking and scanning. However, with ad quality controls moving up the supply chain, publishers’ blocking tech can serve the purpose it always should have—a final countermeasure against malvertising.