‘Beware of the kinks’: Confessions of an ad buyer swindled by fraudsters

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Ad fraud remains a persistent problem for everyone in the ad industry aside from the fraudsters themselves. For the latest installment of our anonymous Confessions series, we talked to an ad buyer who had to clean up the mess left by scammers. The source said there’s no standard procedure for how brands try to recoup money they’ve lost, agencies should be more upfront about the risks of fraud and that the rise of self-service ad tech has prompted existential questions at agencies. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity.

Once you become aware of fraud, how do you handle it?
We blacklist the site the fraud is occurring on, and we may re-examine the platforms we use that we bought the fraud through. We also want to tell the brand this happened, but that’s not an easy thing to bring up.

How do brands react once they’re alerted to fraud in their campaign?
It can really vary. They may want their money back or want us to reinvest the money they already spent. But that comes out of the agency’s pocket, and it’s not like the agency stole their money.

Are brands ever sympathetic to the difficulty of fighting fraud?
Even if they understand the agency isn’t at fault, that doesn’t mean they are OK with losing money. The fraud hurts all of us, but we still have to make good with our clients.

It sounds like there is a lot of gray area here.
There is a lot of gray area! And that’s part of what makes it so hard about talking about this. There isn’t a standard procedure for what will happen once you start cleaning this crap up, and the uncertainty is unnerving.

Do you ever avoid telling the brand about the fraud?
We never want to sweep it under the rug. We want to have long-term partners, so we want to be upfront whenever this happens. If they find out about it on their own, it will be much worse than if we bring it to their attention.

Is fraud more likely to occur when you buy video inventory?
Yeah, but that’s just because of the current marketplace. Video is hot now, so with everyone wanting to buy it, there’s more incentive to game it.

Are you doing anything to prevent fraud?
We employ third-party measurement systems in the hope that they will cover this stuff. And they are genuinely trying to fix it. But it’s not possible to fix everything, and once you fix one thing, the perpetrators have already figured out their next gimmick.

Why isn’t the risk of fraud more thoroughly negotiated and built into contracts?
Agencies need to do a better job of making clients aware it’s a possibility. But many agencies avoid this conversation because it is a risky subject when you are trying to make a sale. If I’m trying to win over a big brand, am I going to say: ‘Hey, bad shit may happen to you’? No, I’m not. So there’s some head in the sand on this issue.

Has ad fraud soured your outlook on programmatic advertising?
It shows why programmatic investments are sensitive. But we already know it can be risky. So that doesn’t mean we are stopping programmatic just because of some fraud. These platforms are really efficient, and they usually work well. We just have to beware of the kinks.

How common do you think ad fraud is?
Look, most agencies are dealing with this. But it isn’t to the point where it is unbearable to do business. It’s definitely happening, but we aren’t living in some kind of advertising war zone.

Is there anything else about programmatic that bothers you?
As managed-service models become less important, people at agencies are starting to wonder what they’ll do for a living. Will we just become a bunch of trading desks? I think [trading desk is] a misnomer, but there is certainly fear there as agencies try to figure out what business they are in.


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