Marketers take drastic measures as ad tech snafus erupt

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Out of chaos comes order.

At least, that’s the hope for a group of marketers who’ve been hit by one ad tech disaster after another lately.

First, they cringed at Forbes selling ads on a shady site built to game ad spending. Then, they were floored by Colossus misrepresenting traded IDs.

Now, they’re worried these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Some are already taking action. 

“We’re probably looking at cutting out 60% of our partners,” said the head of programmatic on behalf of advertisers at a global agency who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue. 

That’s around five of the dozen supply-side platforms (SSPs) the agency works with, continued the exec, who added, “they’re the ones we can really trust.”

By “trust,” they mean relying on those five or so to deliver the best in fees, inventory quality, transparency, brand safety, and overall performance. 

What began as a panic-induced cull quickly turned into a full-blown supply-path optimization exercise — the kind of shake-up agencies do every so often to make sure they’re partnering with the most reliable and effective suppliers, especially since so many of them are selling the same thing thanks to header bidding.

“It’s fair to say we’re weighing up whether to conduct SPO on the dozen supply-side platforms we work but really it’s driven by the fact that there’s a lack of trust in the market internally and among our clients,” said the exec.

Moves like this speak volumes about how worried this ad exec is, and many more like them, about their programmatic ad dollars these days. Cutting budgets earmarked for the category is their go-to panic button, but there’s no guarantee the worries will vanish. Programmatic’s issues are still a mess. Real change needs a top-to-bottom overhaul, not just budget cuts. Even the exec admits these moves are knee-jerk reactions.

This exec ? stopped buying ads from Forbes the moment Adalytics exposed it for running a made-for-advertising site on the side. But they’re clueless if others are doing the same and, more importantly, if they’re inadvertently buying from them.

With Colossus, they have no idea if the mismatched ID fiasco will continue. So, instead of risking it, the exec has decided to keep avoiding ads from there, having cut ties as soon as those wonky IDs were discovered. Better safe than sorry, is the mantra.

Even so, these cuts aren’t straightforward decisions. They come with their own set of challenges to tackle.

For starters, will cutting these sites and vendors cause major blowback to ad spending? Then there’s the question of why ad tech vendors didn’t figure out that Forbes was running a made-for-advertising site. How will sites be certified and verified to prevent this from happening again? And what exactly happened with the Colossus snafu? More importantly, why did it happen in the first place?

These ad execs have more questions than answers right now. Still, they feel compelled to act, even without having all the answers.

Take the ad tech exec who isn’t even trying to make sense of the colossal mess of allegations that Colossus has been swapping low-quality user IDs with high-value ones. 

They don’t care if it was accidental or not. Theories won’t help them. All that matters is that the IDs were misrepresented.

Not only does this hurt their ad dollars, but it also highlights a major flaw in ad tech: the supply side can choose any ID for the bid request using whatever methodology they prefer, and the DSP just has to trust it’s accurate. It’s like navigating a dark room with a map you can’t verify.

“Anything that people can lie about to make more money in ad tech they will lie about it,” said the ad tech exec.

No shocker here: they ditched Colossus and are now on high alert for any other shady business.

“Since this issue broke, I’ve been sleuthing out what’s causing all of this and I’ve found other instances of it happening beyond Colossus,” continued the ad tech exec. “I’ve seen instances to suggest there’s some cooperation between other supply-side platforms and other ad tech intermediaries to mismatch the wrong cookie ID that a demand-side platform would end up bidding on.” 

Shady sites. Random tech glitches. Dysfunctional infrastructure. Marketers could be forgiven for thinking they’ve time-traveled back to when programmatic advertising was considered murky at best and downright fraudulent at worst by top industry leaders. 

This time, however, the issues are more nuanced, forcing advertisers to navigate complex ethical considerations and make tough decisions about who they work with.

“We’ve advised our clients to use the various analytics platforms rather than to use the so-called verification companies,” said Jay Friedman, CEO of independent media and marketing services firm Goodway Group.

Some marketers have taken this advice to heart, while others are using both approaches selectively. Either way, the message is clear: trust in verification companies is shaky. Marketers feel they should be on top of these issues rather than constantly chasing them.

“The sentiment from marketers by and large, at least the ones working with us, comes from the question ‘why are we paying for verification if we can get all of this good information and make so many valuable decisions as a result of the analytics?’” said Friedman. 

Despite the grumbling, it’s more of a trickle than a tidal wave. Plenty of marketers still don’t know — or care — how their money flows through ad tech. That might change if Adalytics’ findings keep making headlines, but who knows? The lack of transparency in ad tech is old news. Marketers have had multiple chances to fix these issues, but many just haven’t bothered.

“That said, I wonder how much traction any of this ever gets because of the amount of financial pressure brands and agencies are under as well as a complete misalignment of KPIs versus the actual goals the business has,” said Duncan Smith, the CEO of digital agency Journey Further in the U.S.

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