Ad tech industry gears up to combat MFAs

The crackdown on made-for-advertising sites is gaining momentum. 

Magnite, Sharethrough and PubMatic are blocking these sites, making it increasingly challenging for them to profit from their deceptive practices. 

On the surface, this may seem like overreach given MFAs don’t sound that harmful. After all, how much damage could sites specifically designed for ad-serving purposes really cause? It turns out, a lot. These sites disrupt the user experience, compromise the value of content, introduce potential security risks and erode trust in the digital advertising ecosystem.

And yet until recently, those same sites have thrived for years with minimal resistance from the ad tech industry. However, everything changed when the ANA launched an investigation that uncovered shocking truths last month about MFAs. The group’s findings prompted uncomfortable questions: Why haven’t these sites been aggressively blocked? How did they manage to infiltrate marketplaces that were meant to showcase the best of the internet outside major platforms?

Ad tech vendors (well, some of them at least) felt compelled to act.

Sharethrough wasted no time in sweeping away all MFAs from their off-the-shelf deals and custom PMPs following those revelations. Soon after, PubMatic followed suit. Not to be outdone, Magnite also stepped up to the plate, promising to disable MFA inventory upon advertiser request, not only in PMPs but also in the curated versions of the open programmatic marketplace it sells.

While these actions are commendable, it begs the question: Why did it take a full-blown media circus to make ad tech folks break a sweat? It seems that the commercial costs were deemed too steep and the reputational rewards too elusive for many of those companies. The sell-side of ad tech, in particular, had a hard time blocking MFAs sooner. Their argument? Doing so would hurt their bottom line more than it would impact the MFAs themselves. 

“We focused on PMPs initially as they’re somewhat of a safe place for us to disable this MFA supply because when we do it the buyers would allow their spend to redistribute to better quality sites,” said Curt Larson, chief product officer at Sharethrough. “If we turn off MFA in our entire exchange — and this would be true for any exchange — all that happens is the spend moves to our competitors.” 

Implicit in these comments is the belief that this issue ultimately revolves around demand rather than supply. Marketers, together with their ad tech partners, need to be the ones to stop purchasing MFA inventory. Without their commitment, the efforts of companies like Sharethrough and PubMatic may prove inconsequential. Apparently, the noble cause of ethics and integrity isn’t enough motivation. 

“If the sell-side sells lemon impressions and the buy-side keeps buying them knowing they are lemons, then so be it,” said Tom Triscari, the programmatic consultant who finished the ANA’s examination of programmatic advertising, including MFAs. “As long as there’s a market for useless MFA inventory, there will always be a market-maker willing to facilitate those trades.”

However, not every buyer in this lemon market falls for the sour surprise of lower-quality goods. Some of them have a knack of spotting the real deal among the bunch. 

For instance, programmatic media buyer MiQ recently teamed up with ad tech vendor OpenX. Together, they moved to eliminate MFAs from all the direct-sold deals MiQ bought from the programmatic marketplace. To achieve this, MiQ provided their own customized list, which OpenX then merged with programmatic consultancy Jounce Media’s existing list of designated MFA domains.

The result? A whopping 37 percent surge in the number of MFA domains kicked to the curb by MiQ and OpenX versus those deals that weren’t curated in this way. But that’s not all — they managed to kick nearly 1,600 unique domains from their direct deals in just one day.

Of course, this might not be the ultimate solution to wiping out MFAs entirely — it didn’t even cover those in the open market. But it’s an encouraging example of what can be achieved when stakeholders align. And who knows, maybe MiQ and OpenX’s success will inspire others to stop buying MFAs too.

“MFAs are bigger than one part of the supply chain but I think we as an industry need to think about how we get DSPs to give advertisers more direct controls over what does and doesn’t get bought so that we can block MFAs without having to email an account manager,” said Lara Koenig, global head of product at programmatic specialist MiQ.

Then again this is ad tech; things are rarely straightforward. 

Let’s face it, the MFA battle isn’t a walk in the park. Some notable exceptions like The Trade Desk have put up a good fight, implementing robust measures to curb MFA inventory purchases through their ad tech platform. Yet, the sad reality is that most DSPs haven’t fully embraced the challenge. It’s partly because blocking one MFA site often gives rise to another, making it like a game of whack-a-mole. But there’s another side to the story — those billions of reasons to turn a blind eye. Ad tech vendors happily make bank from inventory, no matter the quality, as long as it’s deemed brand safe.

“MFA ‘synthetic’ inventory may have already become too important for the economic machine of DSPs and SSPs,” said Triscari. “What if without the extra volume their economics fall apart?”

The debate boils down to balancing an advertiser’s choice with the overall wellbeing of the industry. Advocates stress individual choice, while critics emphasize the greater good of the industry. All told, it’s a clash of ethics and consequences in deciding whether to trade MFAs. Finding a middle ground that balances both is essential — but not impossible, as Index Exchange can attest. 

Over the last year, the ad tech vendor actively removed MFAs at the exchange level. It curates its marketplace, continuously sifting out such sites. The more it does those the less the likelihood of advertisers purchasing MFAs through a DSP. 

“We have always made an effort to block inventory that is low effort or low quality, has a high ad density to content ratio, and has high levels of social or display ad traffic, which are all common criteria of MFA content,” Index Exchange said in an emailed statement. “Quality has been a cornerstone of Index since the launch of the exchange, and our policies are continually revised to support this, in lockstep with feedback from our buyers and partners.”

It’s a thought not lost on the team at Basis Technology. For nearly a decade, the DSP has been adjusting its own guardrails to block out miscellaneous sites like MFAs. But rather than block individual MFAs, the ad tech vendor blocks the ad tech intermediaries selling them across the marketplaces it shops in.

“It’s incumbent on everyone across the industry to work on this — not just either side of the market,” said Matt Sauls, general manager of the DSP’s technology division.

Changes are happening, to be clear — but progress feels tentative. Removing MFAs from PMPs can only do so much, especially when they amount to so little of those marketplaces in the first place (9% for Sharethrough). Instead, more ad tech vendors must either refuse to buy this inventory outright, like Basis and The Trade Desk do, or cease selling it, as OpenX has proposed to do. Only by taking decisive actions can the industry effectively tackle the MFA challenge. 

“We are actively building the right technical solution for this while working with buyers to align on any changes to the composition of their buys that may result,” said a spokeswoman for OpenX. “We expect this to be completed within the coming months.”

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