Digital media ad quality matters to the advertising industry’s big brands in a major way. Unlike performance-driven marketers (who generally assess the impact of media spending on actual sales or highly tangible outcomes), big brands have goals that are often at risk of being taken advantage of in digital media. To consider the scale of the market for big brand advertising in digital, we note that the largest 200 advertisers who account for around two thirds of TV advertising in the United States ($40 billion annually), perhaps $8 billion is spent on digital media by these marketers, primarily in display-related environments. This group and other smaller marketers who have brand-based objectives represent a significant share of the more-than $20 billion that will be spent on non-search-based digital advertising this year.
For these advertisers, “brand-unsafe” content, ‘bots and unviewable inventory threaten the integrity of digital media as something they can reliably buy. According to some sources (and depending on the type of traffic and seller of the media), only a minority of impressions delivered may be deemed to be viewable. Ad fraud (involving bots) and traffic to sites with brand-unsafe inventory (featuring violence or adults-only content, for example) are less common, but present marketers with greater concerns and potential headline risks. These problems are exacerbated by the ongoing growth in programmatic media buying, which coincides with advertisers focused on buying audiences aggregated from across a wide range of inventory sources. With less accountability – or sometimes technical ability – on the part of sellers to assure buyers that they are receiving inventory which meets certain standards, quality issues become increasingly significant.
We moderated a panel discussion at an industry event on the topic this week and found several key takeaways:
Ad quality should not always be considered as one problem, but sometimes as several unrelated problems. Viewability, bots and brand-safety are often lumped together. This can make sense from the vantage point of a marketer who may be thinking in terms of how to limit the presence of undesirable inventory within a media campaign. However, in trying to understand issues and solutions it can be important to consider the problems separately.
There are practical issues in publicly addressing the topic of ad quality within the industry. Ad quality probably doesn’t get as full a public debate as industry participants might want to have. Brands do not wish to be seen as wasting money, sellers of media have an interest in not being seen as a source of questionable inventory and agencies do not want to be seen as having abetted the problem as an intermediary, and neither do the technology companies they work with. As a consequence, this can mean that the loudest voices may be those who are selling solutions to the problems at hand which, while necessary, may lead to skewed views in the public domain.
Marketers’ choices have generally catalyzed problems. Ad quality problems have occurred in large part because marketers aggressively look to incorporate low cost media inventory in their digital media mixes given the notion that simply applying data or audience-targeting to inventory can make it valuable. While there is going to be low-cost inventory which happens to be high quality, low price benchmarks indirectly incentivize the industry to produce and sell more inventory by any means necessary, not least because willing buyers end up taking the inventory, driving relative pricing down for everyone.
The common use of simple attribution models makes the problem worse. “Last-viewed” attribution – a commonly relied-upon approach connecting a desired marketing objective such as a site visit to the serving of a specific impression on a web page – may be contributing to ad quality problems too. For example, an ad at the bottom of a web page may never be viewed, but as the last ad to load, it may get all of the credit when a consumer eventually visits an advertiser’s website.
Sellers of inventory are the industry participants who have to take the lead in continuously looking for solutions to the problem of ad quality. Marketers’ choices may be catalyzing ad quality problems, but sellers have a greater long-term incentive (and higher profit margins, typically) to ensure that ad quality solutions are in place for the inventory they monetize. For investors this means it is important to understand how publishers, ad networks and ad tech businesses ensure ad quality in the inventory they sell. Undoubtedly ad quality will be a persistent issue for the industry, but over time marketers will increasingly make demands about buying ads that meet increasingly rigid guidelines. They will also become more sophisticated in their approaches to attribution. As these trends occur, the sellers of digital media with better ad quality management should be better positioned to gain revenue share in the future relative to sellers with inferior solutions.