'The Flash Boys' Guide To Programmatic Deal-Making

In our ongoing push to improve the collective understanding of our industry, the financial markets are a cousin of sorts where we can draw useful similarities. Michael Lewis’s book “The Flash Boys” can provide the latest signpost forward.

The book centers on the complicated web of relationships in financial trading — a system in which investors didn't know where their orders were placed, or the mechanics of their ultimate executions. That blindness led to lost revenue due to unfair pricing for buyers and sellers. The book’s protagonists are among the few to pick apart these mysteries, ultimately building solutions that give investors renewed confidence.  

In our world of exchange-traded media, we also struggle with complexity. Buyers and sellers would argue that a sense of fair pricing is lost in the chain of intermediaries and parallel markets.  We hope to drive growth in premium programmatic buying, but like the financial markets, without that ability to fulfill orders transparently, our industry struggles to realize its full potential.



So if the lesson from the “Flash Boys” is that we must tend to our garden to clear up the path to market, here are four critical improvements for which we should strive.  

Deal-making standards are vital for scale.  Unfortunately, DealID has created fragmenting systems.  It feels like enabling premium programmatic deals would be a USP for the platform that gets it right.  However an open “orders” standard would offer greater long-term support of better transactions.   The IAB pioneered a common order spec as early as 2008: the Open Advertising protocol, which got some attention in 2013 but hasn’t gained traction industrywide.   At the end of the day, we’re still talking about transactions between two parties  — but now we need to equip that space with some consistency.

Plugging data holes to make pricing more fair. There's a lot of inventory data out there that isn't making its way into bidstreams.  Some limitations are due to the latency/cost of passing so much in the bidstream---but this information could be available via specialized integrations (maybe the reason to join buying platform X or exchange Y is that this info is provided automatically) or possibly via universal pre-bid identifiers.   

End-to-end transparency and objectivity in auction-level reporting . Post-campaign impression verification/reporting is becoming more common and increasingly robust.  However, transparency through the maze of the ad auction is still difficult to achieve.  Buyer-seller pairs should be able to piece together a clear picture of the fulfillment of their agreement. It should not take exorbitant fees to unearth this audit trail: from knowing how each auction matched their targeting, to the conditions where an otherwise well-targeted bid match failed (being trumped by other dealIDs, etc.), to the handoffs between supply/exchange and DSP. I find it hard to imagine anybody would rather save a few fractions of a penny CPM by giving up the ability to see what transpired—particularly for more premium deals.

Supply needs to be certified. There will always be criminal activity, but the concerted, industrywide effort to maximize authenticity of impressions is essential.  It may not be possible to have a universal standard, but even with a few trusted certifications, the marketplace can be much more well-lit.

While the comparisons between Wall Street and ad tech should be taken with a grain of salt because of their disparate orientations, there are definitely lessons to be drawn.  It’s time to unravel some USPs, which may benefit a few, to create better transparency and the elusive liquidity we seek in digital deal-making.  

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