Agency of the Year 2009: Client of the Year: Malvertisers

Say hi to the bad guys

Every so often, magazine editors like to use gimmicks to convey important ideas and trends that are changing the world of their readers. And more often than not, they use devices like annual awards or recognitions to do this. So in the spirit of Time magazine picking everyone from Hitler, Stalin, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Ben Bernanke, and even "you," MEDIA is honoring an unusual marketer as its "Media Client of the Year" for 2009. Tech folks might find the term "client" an interesting double entendre in this case, because we've picked Malvertisers as an entity.

Hopefully, I don't need to explain that term to most of you, but for those who may not be familiar with it, the term malvertising is a contraction of the words malware and advertising that's been coined to describe a group of grey or black market operatives who have begun utilizing online advertising to distribute malware. And the reason we picked them is because over the past year they have demonstrated some of the greatest ingenuity, albeit for the wrong reasons, in utilizing media to distribute their product, service, or, if you will, "brand." In fact, they've nailed all three of our core criteria for these selections: strategic vision, innovation and industry leadership. They have a distinct strategy and a unique vision for leveraging media to further their end goals; they are constantly innovating techniques, practices and strategies to stay ahead of the marketplace; and they have led the industry to respond, adapt and, most importantly, to become aware of what is truly lurking out there in cyberspace, even if you don't necessarily suspect it.

I will tell you that this has been a personal odyssey for me, ever since I became aware of how insidious and ubiquitous malvertising practitioners had become. It was always there in the background - a story here or there about some illicit, unknown source utilizing advertising to distribute malicious code - but it really hit home for me a few months ago when I learned that malvertisers were beginning to impersonate legitimate advertisers and agencies, and placing advertising via industry standard processes, including buys on ad networks, and, amazingly, even posing as ad agency media buyers and placing insertion orders directly on major publishers' sites. Yes, it's insidious, but it's also ingenious, and at the very least has been a wake-up call for Madison Avenue that the digital advertising and media marketplace is no longer business as usual. Nowadays you need to suspect, and even expect the unusual.

We toyed with the notion of awarding the recognition to a specific entity, such as the Russian Business Network, which has a notorious reputation for utilizing ingenious means of distributing malware, even going so far as to set-up an online affiliate marketing program to recruit others to join their network. In the end, though, we felt that there are too many individuals operating in this cyberspace to pin it on one organization. But it is a practice that we all need to be vigilantly aware of, and to guard against. So, thank you, denizens of the deep servers for making us aware of just how precarious the digital media business is, and to force all of us to up our game and to stay ahead of, well, you.

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