Rubicon Project's Barrett: Tackle Transparency Or Ad Tech Could Face Regulation

The ad-tech ecosystem and programmatic media are at a crossroads -- and the demand for transparency is table stakes. That was the message advanced by Michael Barrett, Rubicon Project's president and CEO,  keynoting the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) Programmatic Symposium.

His presentation, “Doing It With The Lights On: The Future Of A Well-lit Marketplace,” was a response to the wake-up call the industry is receiving from marketers  fed up with ad tech and its  lack of transparency around in inventory pricing and fees, quality of inventory, viewability, media measurement, and brand safety

“If I spend ‘x’ dollars on advertising programmatically, what is the real cost of the media? Was my ad viewed? Was it viewed by a human? I really think that in order to continue growth in this industry, we have to take a step back and make sure those questions are being answered,” Barrett said.

Barrett reiterated the IAB’s definition of programmatic, which it’s now calling “automated," to describe it as “the application of data and software to automated digital advertising transactions."

Describing the landscape industry stakeholders find themselves in, Barrett said “marketers have hit the pause button, and will continue to hit it until things are addressed.” He described the industry as in an “existential crisis” and warned attendees more than once that if it doesn’t show speed and leadership, “others will make these changes for us by setting standards and practices, and dictating value.”

He urged members of the industry to work together since no  single company can do everything itself.

Barrett said companies in the space lead with features and don’t talk about what they actually do: “You shouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand what companies do in this space. … We need to demystify what we do, and show where the inefficiencies are in the supply chain, where the problems are occurring.”

He called on the industry to adopt the IAB’s definitions set out in the association's new framework.

Barrett went further to challenge the industry to respond to his recommendations. For example, companies in the space need to explain what business they’re in. “What’s the idea of being a first- or second-price auction really mean? What is a data-driven model? What exactly do you do?”

Regarding the so-called “ad tech tax,”  companies need to explain how much money actually goes to buying an ad.

While that may not be an easy answer, “the simple fact is there’s no advertiser that won’t demand the answer to that question and demand an audit to know what’s happening with their spend,” Barrett noted. Simply put, “what is the cost of the transaction?” he said.

Barrett said stakeholders need to be “radically transparent about pricing.”

He also held his own company to the fire, saying “Rubicon isn’t [transparent]. While the seller and buyer are charged a fee, what is that fee structure? Make it plain and simple.” Once this is confronted, the ad-tech tax issue can be addressed, he said.

“We must work together against bad actors,” Barrett said, citing the IAB and Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), as examples of organizations that are doing so. He urged companies to share data about who the bad actors are. “Marketers can help, too, by working with agencies and vendors on the buy side to help solve the problem.”

Barrett said that open source technology is an attractive idea and cited prebid.js. “The time is right for the industry to explore it.”

He called for speed and collaboration in making changes and said that after these issues are resolved sufficiently, an industry effort around attribution is also needed. “Moving from a cookie-based world to a people-based world will require more open-source work.”

The IAB recently made TAG registration mandatory for its members, which Barrett called  "a great first step. I see a world where you cannot work with anyone that’s not part of TAG.”

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