Traffic Fraud And Tennis Courts

Last week I covered the release of the Drum Digital Trading Manifesto. It has gone down very well with the industry, and we all looked forward to a bright future.

You might recall that I pointed out how various links in the display ad trading chain accuse each other of being the weak link. I have long been frustrated by the finger-pointing attitude of "it's those guys you need to worry about, not us," but in this case it was good to see a proper debate being played out.

And then, as if sent by the Gods of weekly column writers to illustrate my points, along came the Mercedes-Benz and Rocket Fuel story. To recap, Telemetry -- the ad fraud detection company -- suggested that in a sample of 3650000 ad impressions brokered by Rocket Fuel over three weeks, 57% were viewed by "bots" rather than humans.

We know that this is not a unique story and we know that it's probable that at least a third of all ad traffic is generated by bots. What interested me was the reaction to the story. It is rare that actual campaigns have been named and vendors called out.

And then it began. Even before Rocket Fuel’s PR team woke up to the fact that this might be slightly embarrassing , the expert opinion was in full flow. We heard from Andrew Goode at Project Sunblock, who told The Drum: "The issue is that there is a real lack of visibility around where digital ads end up once they are fed into ad exchanges who have no commitment or ability to identify and weed out fraudulent publishers so the robots go on undetected.”

Not surprisingly, Marco Bertozzi of Vivaki takes a different view. He took to Twitter to point out his recent blog post where he entertainingly posted: "I have no sympathy with the wailing and thrashing of bare backs about the state of inventory.” He goes to on to criticize the advertisers for paying rock-bottom prices via ad networks and accepting blind buys. He also challenges auditors to seek “value, not price.”

Eventually somebody at Rocket Fuel HQ decided to react to the story. The view expressed was a somewhat puzzling one. It's not actually the fault of anybody in the industry (and certainly not Rocket Fuel's) at all. Oh no -- in this case there is another more insidious party that needs addressing. Rocket Fuel told The Drum: "Bots are a real problem, but (and we knew there would be a 'but') less so than sensational headlines on top of non-news." Phew, well, that's a relief. Stand down, everybody, it's not news.

Warming to his theme, the spokesman then criticized the headline (in the original FT story) as suggesting "an apocalypse of digital advertising." I'll spare you the full tortured graphic description of how small the actual problem was -- which, in an unexpected turn of events, involved 1,231,173 doubles tennis courts and 1” x 1” postage stamps (Who says the world of digital measurement is not looking for more reliable metrics?) and take you to the actual stat that made me sit up. The Spokesman then referred to the fact that Rocket Fuel rejects approximately 40% of all traffic due to its failure to pass its own bot and brand safety screens.

Forty percent of traffic is rejected? And that's not a problem?

Whoever is to blame here -- whether it be the advertiser, the agency, the ad exchange, the auditors or the whole damn chain -- I'm pretty sure it's not the headline writer's fault. We need more of these exposures, more questioning of process and more vendors being held to account. The process might be painful, but it's one that needs to happen.

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