Anatomy of an ad tech outrage

Few topics ignite the advertising community as intensely as the notion of made-for-advertising sites (MFAs). The mere utterance of these initials appears to whip this particular group into a frenzy of indignation, panic and resentment. 

In fact, if their denial of MFAs were any more fervent, it could potentially disrupt the fabric of space and time itself. And to think none of it would’ve happened save for an audit back in June. It showed tens of millions of dollars are actually being spent on these sites that intentionally siphon money away from genuine publishers. 

Of course there was going to be an outpouring of outrage. The existence of MFAs is undeniably detrimental. And yet, it’s disheartening that it took such an audit for the industry at large to finally acknowledge their existence. After all, these sites have been around for several years, although in retrospect, this lack of acknowledgement isn’t all that surprising.

Remember, this is an industry that likes to cling to plausible deniability. Or at least it does until it’s no longer plausible to deny what’s blindingly obvious. 

This is what happened when the study found that 15% of the money spent on the audited campaigns went to MFAs. 

All of a sudden, a wave of strong opinions swept through the market. Everyone seemed eager to point fingers and lay blame on others. Yet, only a few acknowledged their own role in the spread of MFAs. Fewer still seemed even remotely interested in doing anything to stop it. 

But can you blame them?

Be it ad fraud, hidden ad tech fees, black box algorithms or data leakages, the industry’s history demonstrates fleeting concern for such matters. Why should MFAs be treated any differently? They’re merely the latest addition to a long series of inconvenient truths the industry prefers to overlook. 

“It is a sad state of affairs, indeed reminiscent of so many similar examples in (recent) history,” said Ruben Schreurs, chief strategy officer at Ebiquity. “All could be solved if buyers opt for a strict curation strategy, and if the sell-side would adopt thorough KYC processes and commit to quality guarantees and radical transparency on the inventory they represent. Until then, we continue to play Whac-A-Mole with themes and acronyms changing every season.” 

Comments like this tend to be delivered in hushed tones or anonymously. There are few ad execs who want to rock the boat openly. And even on the rare occasions that they do want to, they don’t believe they can. In their eyes, it’s wiser to keep quiet and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt. And they may have a point if Digiday’s recent conversations with marketers are anything to go on.

Here’s what the in-house media director at a CPG business said on the condition of anonymity: “The problem is that for us and a lot of our peers there’s just not much attention on MFAs — even though these sites are hurting advertisers and publishers alike.”

Another ad tech exec vouched for this apathy — and yes, you guessed it, they did so anonymously: “We tried to launch a programmatic marketplace several years ago that was meant to be fully transparent end-to-end. When we took it to our partners we were upfront about what would happen. They’d see a reduction in fees because there would be no hidden costs but as a result they’d see more volume of spending coming through their tech. Nobody gave a shit.”

These glimpses into the issue are a sharp reminder of the usually minimal impact that outbursts like the one about MFAs tend to achieve — which is often not much. 

Regrettably, even the most well-crafted social media posts, eloquent keynotes and comprehensive audits frequently fall short of making a significant difference. To genuinely address these pervasive issues, ones that have become deeply rooted industry norms, marketers must commit to confronting their underlying causes with unwavering determination. Here’s a spoiler: the truth is that most of them don’t take this decisive step.

Think back to the commotion surrounding transparency in media buying several years ago, for instance. Marketers projected an image of deep concern, but it turns out their engagement was more a matter of convenience. When the narrative suited them, they showed interest. When it didn’t, they moved on, inadvertently sinking numerous enterprises that had operated under the presumption of genuine marketer commitment. 

“These PR disasters are often followed by quotes from big brands and advertisers that they are pulling spend and finding alternative solutions,” said Steven Filler, county manager at contextual ad tech business ShowHeroes Group. “However, once the dust settles it feels like normal service is resumed and the tech giants continue to maintain their disproportionate share of advertising spend.”

Why break the habit of a lifetime now? 

Indeed, MFAs are a symptom of a much larger issue — large swaths of online advertising are wired to deliver as much reach as possible in the open web on the condition that some of it will be blunt at best, fraudulent at worst. This leads ad dollars to flow to disreputable programmatic sellers. Other symptoms include exposure to pirated content, connected TV fraud, mis-declared in-stream video and so on. To unravel all of this would mean marketers would have to admit their strategies for programmatic advertising were rubbish because they reward advertising on rubbish like MFAs. On the flip side, ad tech vendors would have to do without the cut they take each time an ad appears on a MFA site if they blocked them. 

That’s a substantial dose of humility to swallow. And just like some are willing to savor an acquired taste, there might be those who find themselves open to turning their platitudes into action.

“I am optimistic that at a very basic level, more and more buyers are more and more skeptical when they see impossible KPIs,” said Chris Kane, founder of programmatic consultancy Jounce Media. “If you’re running a video campaign and the clearing price is a $3.50 CPM, and you’re observing 85% viewability and 90% completion rates, that just doesn’t check out. You’re not going to find that combination of KPIs on any credible website on the internet. More people around the industry [are] putting some basic business gut checks against some of the numbers they’re seeing and are starting to be skeptical when they see just impossible KPIs.”

The signs of this really do exist, although they might be rare and scattered. Slowly but surely, the cost of overlooking issues like MFAs is rising for both advertisers and the industry as a whole thanks to the deprication of third-party addressability. The harder this sort of measurement gets, the more advertisers are going to have to shift toward metrics like attention, rather than just optimizing to specific metrics such as viewability or video completion. Essentially, it means that less can indeed be more — fewer impactful impressions with robust creative and more substantial placements on a select group of quality publishers, Kane concluded.

In the MFA context, this would mean that rather than just blocking those known domains that could descend into a game of Whac-A-Mole, marketers would start transacting with only trusted sellers. Doing so would insulate their advertising from nearly all of these issues.

But therein lies the paradox with these unsettling situations: it’s the hope that lures you in, even though it can be the very thing that leads to disappointment.

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