The Rundown: The ANA’s latest programmatic transparency audit confirms many open secrets

Programmatic advertising transparency brouhaha is the industry’s theater of indignation. 

A recent investigation commissioned by the ANA leaves little doubt of this. Instead of groundbreaking revelations, the findings merely reinforced what industry insiders have long suspected: the landscape is shrouded in uncertainty, veering into potential fraud, as previously expressed by Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard in 2017.

The audit echoes familiar themes that have resurfaced time and again in recent years. Demands for improved data access from ad tech vendors? They persist. Alarming statistics highlighting wastage within the system? They abound. Calls for advertisers to hold ad tech accountable? They’re louder than ever. What about demand for fewer ad tech middlemen? Duh. 

Rather than recounting each point exhaustively, let’s focus on a selection that reveals not only what they say but, perhaps more significantly, what they fail to address.

Enter the wasted ad spend epidemic

The average campaign sprawls across a staggering 44,000 websites, as the audit revealed. But here’s the twist: advertisers can achieve their goals by targeting a fraction of this colossal expanse. Brace yourself for another revelation — merely 100 publishers snatch a jaw-dropping 80% of programmatic ad dollars, as previously unveiled by Jounce Media. This stark concentration demolishes the illusion of an impenetrable open internet, guiding buyers toward a clearer path to transparency. That is, if they’re willing to pay more to be on the best sites. Up until now, they haven’t. 

Full path log level data annihilates the once-elusive “unknown delta”

This enigmatic delta, highlighted in a previous study, is not a financial setback, but rather a limitation in data capabilities. Equipped with this data, advertisers unlock invaluable insights into viewability and true cost per impression, empowering them to optimize ad tech vendors and bidding strategies. Unsurprisingly, the ANA’s investigation revealed no concealed delta of unattributable ad spend when sufficient data was analyzed. Nonetheless, obtaining these answers remains a formidable challenge, further compounded by the intricate task of harmonizing diverse datasets.

MFA is FTW

Auditors found that 15% of the money spent on the audited campaigns — and 21% of the total impression volume — were on made-for-advertising sites. These sites exist for the sole purpose of aggressively monetizing traffic so they don’t have to worry about the cost of acquiring it in the first place. In other words, these sites are in the business of ad arbitrage. And business is booming. 

“This is a lot more than any advertisers would have guessed,” said a source who was close to the investigation.“The vast majority of marketers have no idea it’s as bad as this.“

These issues show no signs of relenting in the foreseeable future, primarily because advertisers lack the motivation to instigate change. Instead, they exacerbate the problem by imposing stringent commercial terms on agencies and ad tech vendors. Consequently, these companies resort to dubious tactics to recoup their losses. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the study saw limited advertiser engagement. While 67 ANA members expressed interest, only 21 ultimately participated. Advertiser evasion of responsibility is a timeless tale within the advertising realm.

Even the challenges encountered during the investigation sound familiar. The main difficulties auditors encountered concerned data ownership rights. This was an issue that Google cited when its supply-side division declined to share log-level data with PwC, as it claimed that such insights were the property of individual publishers. 

“Nothing here is remotely surprising, the conversation has been going on for years. It raises its head every couple of years, dies down again, and continues.” 

Not everyone is as downbeat about the future. 

“I’m optimistic that by publishing stats like 44,000 top-level domains and 15% of spend on MFA, marketers will heed the ANA’s advice to ‘become far more responsible and provide more active stewardship of their media investments,” said said David Kohl, president and CEO of TRUSTX, a programmatic marketplace where buyers only pay for human and viewable impressions on premium publisher inventory across a variety of categories, including news. “I agree that it’s a fool’s errand to use domain-exclusion lists these days, and have always taken the position that marketers will get more working media value when they buy from inclusion lists instead.”

That said, inclusion lists alone aren’t enough. Media buyers need to prioritize supply-paths with direct publishers integrations.

“What’s not highlighted in the report is that every indirect hop between programmatic exchanges reduces inclusion list fidelity and makes it harder for fraud and brand safety technologies to do their jobs,” said Kohl. “Even the most highly-curated inclusion lists won’t protect your media budgets when buying through the daisy-chain of indirect programmatic exchanges.”

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