Commentary

Along Came Mercedes And Rocket Fuel

Recently, I covered the release of the Drum Digital Trading Manifesto. It’s 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’ve 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, an ad fraud detection company, suggested that in a sample of 3,650,000 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 of third of all ad traffic is generated by bots. What interested me was the reaction to the story. It’s been 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.”

Unsurprisingly, 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 criticise 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’s another more insidious party that’s 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 relief. Stand down, everybody, it’s not news.

Warming to his theme, the spokesman then criticised the headline (in the original Financial Times 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 isn’t looking for more reliable metrics) and take you to the actual stat, which 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.

1 comment about "Along Came Mercedes And Rocket Fuel".
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  1. Seth Ulinski from TBR, June 10, 2014 at 12:21 p.m.

    Nice write up, Andy. Educating/exposing can be painful for industry stakeholders, particularly when there isn't an immediate solution. Bots in digital advertising are akin to "black hats" within enterprise data security (coincidentally these tech segments overlap more and more each day). Huge pain points that need to be addressed and the price for ignoring either is huge.

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