Advertisers are moving more of their ad budget to publishers that meet strict brand-safety criteria, as well-publicized brand-safety breaches, viewability gaffes and rampant fraud have battered advertisers’ confidence in online ads bought for them to the point where some are taking matters into their own hands.

Unilever, Diageo and Nestlé are among a group of large global advertisers managing so-called trusted marketplaces: self-erected safe havens of media sellers they trust due to those sellers’ commitment to certain guarantees, not just on price but also qualitative aspects.

Having those qualitative guarantees, which can range from only buying display ads that are 100% in view for at least one second in the case of Unilever, to ranking publishers based on whether their audience is older than the legal drinking age for Diageo, is helping those advertisers move toward trading deals where the fees are minimal and more money ends up with the publisher, they claim.

“What we’re doing is about the campaign data we’re able to get from publishers that will allow us to optimize our spend and ensure that we continue to get the maximum returns from our investment,” said Unilever’s svp of global media, Luis Di Como. The advertiser has created a new set of guidelines media sellers must adhere to before it buys from them.

It sounds like Unilever is building a whitelist, but Di Como said the marketplace will be much more than that once it’s ready. Whereas a whitelist is just a list of sites an advertiser can target on the open marketplace, Unilever wants to eventually set structural deal IDs with publishers through which it can buy premium placements in private marketplaces. In essence, it wants to create a network of PMPs it can buy from as part of its wider trusted marketplace.

“Through our trading desk, we’re going to work closely with our media agency to manage all of our media investments either through a private marketplace or other mechanisms,” added Di Como.

What Unilever et al. are doing isn’t new. Agencies have operated similar marketplaces for some time, while advertisers like Procter & Gamble and Vodafone have only allowed their ads to run on pre-approved lists of sites. But neither of those solutions are very scalable, particularly for those advertisers using more of their digital budget to buy programmatic ads. GroupM’s own “Trusted Marketplace” only lets clients buy ads it has negotiated in preferred marketplaces in 12 markets, for example. Taking the lead on setting up those deals is one way Unilever can try to get that scale more quickly as it won’t be bogged down by commitments to trading deals in the same way agencies could be.

“The days of agencies only wanting to trade with certain publishers are pretty much over,” said Jellyfish digital strategy director Gawain Owen, who helped set up both the trusted marketplaces at Nestle and Diageo when he was a marketer. “Advertisers are a lot clearer now about what sites they want to work with due to the target audiences they seek.”

Heineken is open to making similar moves. The advertiser has started to probe at the unspecified domains some of its ads end up on, often unknowingly in an attempt to consolidate the number of media sellers it buys from. Owning the license to the ad verification firm means Heineken’s marketers get regular reports that highlight those sites and can then work with the vendor to understand why they show up unspecified.

With this knowledge, the advertiser has pushed harder into programmatic over the last year but only with the right inventory. When the advertiser finds publishers and vendors that fit its criteria, it will double down in those areas and set up a marketplace deal with them if possible, said the advertiser’s media lead, Rom Amram. It’s not quite in the same mold as what Unilever is building, though it’s a step toward the advertiser having a network of PMPs of its own as it pulls more money from the open exchange.

Managing all those deals isn’t easy for one advertiser even with the help of its agency.

Media sellers need to be met with regularly to maintain those deals. Publishers are hesitant to have lots of different tags plugged into their site due to concerns the sheer amount would cause latency issues as well as the prospect of having to pay more for what could amount to fewer ads.

Despite the challenges of establishing these programmatic deals, more advertisers are asking their agencies for help. GroupM and Omnicom have both seen an uptick in clients that want to buy in either the private marketplaces they have already set up or pay them to create bespoke ones.

“When our clients are looking to more premium, professionally produced content, we are working with their digital activation teams to set up a unique PMP that is bespoke to their objectives,” said Sal Candela, president of enterprise partnerships at Omnicom Media Group.

It aligns with the growth GroupM has seen behind its own Trusted Marketplace, which launched in 2016. “The marketplace is getting traction with clients because we’re trying to limit the number of exchanges we work with so that there are fewer middlemen who aren’t adding any value involved in transactions,” said Andrew Meaden, global head of partnerships at GroupM.

A greater focus on curating inventory is the result of broader trends. As more spend moves from traditional media to digital and more of those ads are bought via programmatic auctions, more advertisers are moving to buy more of their ads directly from publishers. It’s left many advertisers unknowingly buying ads across hundreds of thousands of different domains, known as the long tail within the open exchange. Digital Decisions regularly sees between 10% to 30% of programmatic budgets spent “in the dark,” where an advertiser will never be able to discern the actual inventory that ads have been delivered on, said the company’s CEO, Ruben Schreurs.

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