Phil Livingstone
Phil Livingstone 27 March 2017

Rage Against The Machine's Algorithm

It is an uneasy time in the digital advertising world. Something is very wrong when you can’t trust the inventory on which you allow your brand to appear on. The walled gardens of today’s internet giants are not infallible, they make mistakes. They have for a long time.

When you have 400 hrs of video uploaded every minute, clearly there will be challenges to verify and classify the inventory. This issue of brand safety will never go away until fully addressed and trust restored.

The recent Times article was right to call out bad practice. It is something that should and could have been addressed sooner. On this particular point, the loop needs closing, even if it does require human input before inventory can enter the ecosystem.

Brand safety verification, fraud detection and blocking are only effective when allowed to run freely in these so called walled gardens. If the industry is to move forward, then surely this has to happen.  

Let’s face it; the media owner, the technology, the agency, hell, even the industry has an inability to deliver on the quality inventory what is sold to advertisers. The promise of programmatic media buying will be forever held back until the quality of inventory problem is sorted out. If mobile is the future, then its foundations are relatively unsteady.

You Tube is the beginning, hopefully mobile, native and in-app will be the next target. It’s not a data protection issue (a typical response when challenged) but one for the internet giants to protect the monetisation of the user’s own data that they have collected. There, I said it. Walled gardens must come down if trust is to be restored.

But how far can you allow the machine to govern, to make decisions about human language, gesture and emotion. Algorithms, smart as they are, also need to co-exist with the human touch. To verify and ratify what is seen, felt and heard.

The industry is right to confront poor inventory quality but it must make a stand to protect the inventory of the future, today. Mobile inventory, in-app inventory and native all need better controls. Either tighter regulation from industry bodies, better controls at source or more open sharing of information between advertisers to weed out poor quality domains. A quality star rating if you like, something visible and transparent.    

Complacency, huge scale and fragmentation of online ad inventory across millions of websites managed by aggregators have exposed digital marketing to problems around fraud, viewability and domain opacity. This isn’t a new phenomenon but has always fallen on deaf ears. Hopefully this renewed wave of irritation will send a clear message to ALL media owners, publishers and agencies. Poor quality inventory should not be tolerated.

The now infamous quote from Marc Pritchard (Chief Brand Officer at Procter & Gamble), that our digital supply chain is 'at best murky and at worst fraudulent'. A simply sentence, summed up an entire £10bn industry in the UK.

As one of my friends, a highly capable digital marketer pointed out; how about less ad placements, less inventory, higher quality creative, higher CPMs, higher dwell time/view-through, greater impact and then maybe we’ll all get actual business results. Food for thought?

A brand is nothing without its reputation. So why risk it? Why expose it?    

Of course, there are simply things you can to protect it namely; Ad verification, Anti-fraud and blocking technology, Pre-bid viewability targeting and an insistence of domain transparency (as much as possible).

But advertisers must go beyond this and have a firm understanding of the digital ecosystem themselves. Know what you are buying. Ask the right questions to understand the inventory view back to source and follow the money at all costs (excuse the pun). You also need a good agency to support you in your quest and finally a capable in-house team to monitor this.

Perhaps the value of display is hidden somewhere over the rainbow. Who is their right mind would buy it...Apparently over 50% of the ads on the web are never seen, 30% of the ad requests are from robots and masked domains. Click rates have gone from 30%, 20 years ago to 0.03% now. Technology costs outweigh any small gains. Last year’s ANA report into transparency put agencies under the spotlight. So at the end of the day; it’s a bloody mess.  

If advertisers really have teeth, now is the time to show it.

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