To Prevent Digital Ad Fraud, Start With Secure Insertion Orders

Recent stories in Online Media Daily and The New York Times about fraudulent insertion orders for Web site advertising remind us that as long as there are dishonest people in the world, we need to harness technology to counter technology.

There's nothing new about bogus insertion orders. For many decades, the barrier of entry was the creative itself: it's not easy to fake a 30-second commercial or glossy print advertisement. But it's not terribly difficult to create a 468x60 digital graphic and make it seem like it's being sent from a legitimate source. In the case of published reports concerning a bogus ad for Internet phone service Vonage, the fake ad reportedly contained malware that took control of consumers' browsers when they visited the site on which the ad was served.



Part of the problem today is the lack of widespread use of digital campaign management systems, and furthermore, the lack of standardized industry protocols for the transmission of insertion orders, creative and invoices. Let's take the systems first. Many agencies are still using systems that they cobbled together at the start of the digital age more than 10 years ago.

Since there are at least a dozen ever-shifting steps in the process of planning and executing digital campaigns -- from brief to planning to RFP and so on down the line, ending with the review of the campaign's performance -- plus a myriad of ad networks and servers to deal with, it's a process that cries out for intelligent, secure management. Add in security concerns, and inadequate systems are akin to having screen doors in submarines.

What, then, constitutes a secure digital management system? In addition to providing a complete, seamless audit trail, effective systems eliminate the need for faxes, which can communicate fraudulent orders, and they also eliminate the need for email attachments.

In any case, it all starts with the insertion order. If the Vonage order -- assuming there was one -- had been sent via a secure system, it's doubtful the harmful ad would have ever been served, because the order would not have made it into the traffic system. But because many agencies are using Excel spreadsheets and email in their communications with Web publishers, and different buyers are handling the same account on different days, this methodology is wide open to abuse. The only truly effective firewall is system-to-system connectivity.

As for industry protocols, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) a couple of years ago began working on E-Business workflow standards for the delivery of data between all relevant systems and trading partners. Last year at this time, the IAB held an Ad Operations Summit to report progress on the initiative. Addressing the assembly, IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg summed things up well when he declared, "You are the guardians of profit in the advertising industry and you have never been more important."

There was considerable discussion about how to reduce discrepancies (caused in part by the magnitude of manual transmission and entry of data) but scant dialogue on phony insertion orders. This is understandable, but it will be interesting to see whether the latter subject gains more attention after the most recent press reports.

While the IAB and the industry are on the right road with regard to standards, it promises to be a long trip. The holy grail, so to speak, is party to electronic delivery of business documents via standard eXtensible Markup Language (XML), the use of which will make it extremely hard to fake insertion orders. The development of such a security infrastructure, however, is still in the embryonic stage. Meanwhile, the best systems available to the market are still far better than doing things the old way.

The advertising and media industry has been through this type of evolution before. Local TV broadcast media have been making great use of the DARE system for more than 15 years. DARE is both a series of standardized electronic transactions and a secure messaging infrastructure. Agency and sales systems that use DARE have eliminated waste and raised efficiency while reducing discrepancies.

Now is the time for our industry to redouble its commitment to achieving these kinds of results for digital campaign management. We've taken small steps, but need to lengthen our stride for everyone's benefit.

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