‘We’ve created a monster’: Publishers vent ad tech frustrations

Relationships between ad tech vendors and publishers are more strained than ever. Over the last five years, programmatic trading has gone from being a peripheral way for publishers to monetize display inventory, to the dominant method for many. More than 60 percent of the £3 billion ($4 billion) digital ad spend in the U.K. was traded programmatically in 2015, according to the IAB.

But this booming industry has been bittersweet for some publishers.

The flash points are legion. The ad tech tax is a perennial gripe: The other week The Guardian revealed that for every pound an advertiser spends programmatically, the publisher only gets 30 pence. A lack of standardization in areas like viewability also remains a massive headache. Other publishers are frustrated that there is still not enough transparency on the mechanics of how some ad technology works. And while there are examples of good ad tech vendor-publisher partnerships, in some cases, relations are becoming quite toxic.

“What used to be small [exchange] partners have now totally disintermediated us from our customers, our control of pricing and distribution,” said a national newspaper programmatic director who preferred to stay anonymous. “We’ve created a monster which now has greater influence than we do.”

We spoke to a range of national newspaper and magazine publishers about their biggest concerns. All spoke under condition of anonymity. Here are the takeaways:

Eroding trust
Publishers, both large and niche, are more suspicious of ad tech’s “agenda” than ever for a mix of reasons. Chief among them: the shift in power. “In the early days of programmatic, publishers gave ad tech a foothold, supporting vendors on the promise of partnership, empowerment and incremental business value,” said one programmatic chief at a national newspaper. That has certainly worked: Publishers have managed to squeeze much-needed additional revenue as a direct result of ad tech partners. The same exec likened this relationship to that of a “crocodile having its teeth cleaned by a plover bird,” to both parties’ mutual benefit and happy co-existence.

But somewhere along the way, an imbalance has taken root. “For publishers and tech, it’s developed into a perverse situation: akin to a leech growing bigger than the body from which it draws blood,” said the exec. “As a result, we’ve become hugely suspicious of ad tech’s agenda, which we’ve found to be driven by aggressive pursuit of short-term business value.”

Foul play?
Fraudulent traffic, or non-human traffic, isn’t something any decent publisher wants. And yet, when it comes to rooting it out, publishers have mixed experiences. An ad ops director at a magazine group said there have been some astonishing and unexpected spikes in fraudulent traffic on its sites, which its ad tech partner is responsible for filtering. On one occasion, fraudulent traffic spiked 40 percent on one site. “When we asked the technical partner for advice, their response was a black-box ‘algorithm tweak’ that reduced the fraudulent traffic back to its customary 5 percent and under, which we filter anyway,” said the executive.

Although this would have increased ad impressions, agencies don’t want their campaigns served to robots anymore than publishers. Also, they use their own ad-performance monitoring tools and would, therefore, be quick to spot it. “Our agencies would have complained and asked for rebates or campaign extensions. It looked like the platform we were using glitched and the fraudulent traffic spike was not real, but they did not admit to this,” the exec added.

Ad impressions wastage
Naturally, the buy side uses its own analytics tools. But there’s no standard, which is creating issues for one paywall publisher we spoke to. One unaccredited fraudulent traffic measurement vendor is currently blocking half of all ad impressions being served on some very niche sites — the kind that typically get next to no bot-traffic because they’re paywalled. “They may just be being over cautious, but that’s a lot of wastage,” said the publisher exec.

Answers tend to be unsatisfactory. “You call them and say you don’t think their tech is right. An account manager will call you back and say that subscribers could have toolbars that generate false impressions while they’re away at lunch. But when you ask why that’s then coming through our ad server and not a fraudster there is no answer,” said the same exec. “We’re now having to get an accredited vendor on our side to verify it. So we’re spending money solving a problem ad tech has created.”

Standards, standards, standards
One programmatic director for a consumer magazine group said it now scrutinizes every move made by ad tech partners. “They often don’t disclose accurate performance data especially around how the tech can affect page-load times,” said the exec. Another common feeling: Once the initial deal is done, there’s a drop in support.

There are, of course, some good partnerships, and publishers have become more adept at spotting bad actors. “My red flag is always up when I see an ad tech vendor with a techie for a CEO, not a commercial person. If they’re not commercially minded, they don’t understand my business problems,” said a senior publishing exec.

With ad tech such a commoditized space, many vendors are clandestine about how their proprietary technology works. But publishers are desperate for more transparency. And with new vendors springing up every other day, the problem stays the same. “My biggest frustration is that the ad tech space is littered with so many providers and there are still no standards,” the exec added.