Time To Rethink Ad Industry Compliance Programs

As Patience Haggin of The Wall Street Journal reminded us earlier this week -- reporting that more than a dozen ad-tech companies had information about Gannett’s repackaging and reselling lower quality websites as its own inventory -- the digital ad industry is not good at protecting itself from misfeasance (unintentional harm) in its programmatic ad practices. And don’t even ask how badly the industry has been in protecting advertisers from malfeasance by companies intent on doing bad things and hiding them.

We have a lot of fraud in digital advertising, and it’s getting worse, not better.

Why is it getting worse? More and more money is being spent on programmatic digital advertising. If you know what you’re doing, it’s easy to spoof programmatic digital ad systems to create fake inventory. Virtually every player in the programmatic ad ecosystem makes more money the more transactions they process.

Finally, we are seeing a massive increase in demand for CTV advertising -- from $6 annually in the U.S. to more than $20 billion in three years -- but CTV ad inventory is only growing 25% per year (most streaming channels carry no or few ads), so something is going to have to give.

What happens when demand for a scarce, valuable and easily forged product exceeds supply, and when there are open exchanges that don’t seem to care about vetting the quality and veracity of products on their marketplaces? Fraudsters manufacture fake supply and sell it on the exchanges.

You can’t stop this fraud with blacklists. Millions of new domains and delivery paths are created daily. You can’t stop this fraud with “Good Housekeeping” seals on websites. They are meaningless, and most of the organizations behind them don’t have the scale, technology, resources or strategies to get rid of the much more sophisticated and better resourced fraudsters.

According to Juniper Research, there was $68 billion of digital ad spend lost to fraud in 2021. Yes, $68 billion. If you want to see examples of how the fraud is perpetrated, and how easily companies are fooled by it, all you need to do is follow ad researcher Dr. Augustine Fou on Twitter or LinkedIn.

We only know about the Gannett situation because two independent researchers, Braedon Vickers and Krzysztof Franaszek of Adalytics, decided to dig into some data that lots of other companies had -- but none seemed intent on discovering what was wrong and then sounding an alarm. Thank you to both researchers. Our industry desperately needs more of this kind of work.

How are we going to stop digital ad fraud? Certainly not the way we are currently doing it, if mistakes like this can hide in plain sight and nobody notices or seems to care (and most or all are incented by the number of transactions processed, not the amount of misfeasance or malfeasance caught and stopped).

We need to reshape our industry compliance efforts around supporting independent work from folks like Adalytics and Dr. Fou and the many dozens of others out there -- forensic diggers who can search, find and out the bad stuff and bad actors in our programmatic platforms, not put more pretty seals on websites.

4 comments about "Time To Rethink Ad Industry Compliance Programs".
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  1. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics, May 5, 2022 at 2:32 p.m.

    I agree with your perspectives here and remain perplexed and angered by what you comment on, and all know to be true. Fraud is massive, getting bigger, and the fraud checkers aren't really working. I am of the opinion that a white list of sites will work better in the short term. Others have found that a reduction in the number of sites used doesn't affect campaign performance so long as the list is robust. We know the big sites that sell direct.  You don't need the long tail. Occasionally even a reputable site may be guilty, but I suspect that's pretty rare. But the problem won't go away so long as surveillance based marketing is ok.  Retargeting visitors to quality sites by hitting them when they visit lower quality ones is a problem for quality publishers. We are, unfortunately, not close to making that a reality. You can target without surveillance. It's worked well for a long time. 

  2. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, May 6, 2022 at 5:34 a.m.

    I'm in the same place as you Jack. That our industry is still in this bad place is very upsetting. For sure, a well mnanaged white list would certainly be an improvement.

  3. Joe Turow from U of Penn, May 7, 2022 at 12:31 p.m.

    Thanks for this post, Dave--and Jack, for your response.  I agree with both of you (and Augustine Fou), especially with Jack that "You can target without surveillance."  There are many creative ways to think about it and carry it out well.  Yet the idea just doesn't get much traction for a variety of interesting reasons.

  4. Jack Wakshlag from Media Strategy, Research & Analytics replied, May 7, 2022 at 2:37 p.m.

    Nice to hear your thoughts and get your perspective Joe.  I am hopeful but not confident that progress will be made here.  There is plenty of room for hucksters and fraudsters to make millions here. 

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