Header Bidding Isn't Helping Improve Ad Quality, Brand Safety

More ad-tech firms are looking to offer, or are already offering, server-to-server header bidding. But client-side header-bidding tactics aren’t going away any time soon, even though they’re fraught with pitfalls. Publishers have opened their Web pages to dozens of demand partners that deposit tags, widgets, bits of code and more on pages, which can wind up slowing page-load times.

With the subject of brand safety moving to the top of marketers’ agendas (again), programmatic media-buying tactics, including header bidding, may involve more risk than marketers should be willing take. Now, even Facebook and Google are involved in some form of header bidding, which may exacerbate existing brand safety issues. Why? Because the tactic is part of the entire fabric of automated media buying. Header bidding rose to prominence as a way of getting around Google and Facebook’s “walled gardens” in the real-time auction process. Ironically, the pendulum is likely to swing back to more controlled tactics.

Problems in the digital advertising supply chain—ad fraud, brand safety, fake news, ad quality, etc.—have been around for a while. Nothing new here. Too, third parties have been trying to monitor ad quality for a while.

Joseph Galarneau, CEO of Mezzobit, a software provider that works with publishers and brand marketers to monitor site traffic and third-party interactions, said Google has made a big effort for ad and marketplace quality with things like blacklisting. “It’s a lot better than it used to be. But the supply chain is larger [now]. and it doesn’t always follow suit. I frankly don’t see this problem resolving any time soon as an industry,” Galarneau said, referring to some marketers suspending non-search advertising on Google due to brand safety concerns.

While the Association for National Advertisers (ANA) and marketers have pushed for more transparency, greater control, and third-party monitoring for some time now, Galarneau, for one, isn’t convinced: “I don’t see any sort of strong trend line toward resolution, whether it’s technology or offline process improvements.”

Galarneau suggested that the industry needs a standardized taxonomy of sites on both the buy and sell sides. He envisions a brand marketer taxonomy and a publisher taxonomy, so “everyone receives complete transparency on where ads run and people agree to site content.”

What may emerge is that the industry moves to eCPMs, or viewable traffic, and brand safety standards are integrated with eCPMs. “From a brand perspective, the underlying driver is that marketers only want to pay for impressions they care about. But if you’re next to offensive content, that’s not going to get you any impressions,” Galarneau said.

“From the publisher’s side, there’s so much that happens on a page to enable a transaction. Hopefully we’ll see some pruning, because header bidding has made this a lot worse,” Galarneau said.

When header bidding moves to the backend, server-to-server, he maintains that there will be less code on Web pages but conceded that “things still might be obscured through black-box exchanges.” And while so-called “premium” publishers will pare back all those tags on their pages, the mid-market “will continue down this road of degradation. In general, I’m not super hopeful that things will get cleaner anytime soon, but I see some signs of progress,” he said.

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