Transparency theater: Marketers’ hypocritical dance in the programmatic landscape

Once again, the marketing landscape is grappling with the notorious term: “transparency.” It tends to resurface whenever marketers face increased pressure to justify their expenses, like, say, in the current economic crisis. 

However, the meaning of “transparency” varies greatly among marketers. 

Some yearn for meticulous breakdowns of cost efficiency, while others crave profound data insights. Yet, amidst this mosaic of perspectives, there’s a resounding agreement: transparency shouldn’t look like what’s available in the marketplace today. And what’s available isn’t much — especially when compared to other industries.

A recent attempt by marketers to unravel where those deficiencies are highlights this stark reality. The attempt in question was the third audit published in as many years. Yet, it merely confirmed what the initial audit had exposed: the programmatic supply chain remains a convoluted mess of complexity and disarray.

Picture this: a market where sites trick advertisers into paying them. These cunning sites, aptly named made-for-advertising sites, couldn’t care less about targeted advertising or the success of advertisers. Their sole obsession is raking in ad dollars, disregarding ad quality and user experience.

And guess what? These mischief-makers are thriving. MFA sites gobbled up a whopping 21 percent of the 35 billion impressions tracked by the study and a notable 15 percent of ad spend. This is what happens to marketers who want to buy the creme da le creme of inventory but on the cheap. They get something that’s made up. 

But like all mirages, this facade in programmatic is trembling under the weight of reality. 

Companies like programmatic consultancy Jounce Media are shedding light on the matter. The company ran 136 multi-seller PMPs (often called “auction packages”) over the last 90 days. Of those, 106 included MFA inventory. On average 6% of spend for multi-seller PMPs goes to MFA inventory. Nearly a quarter (23) of these PMPs spent more than 25% of budget on MFA inventory. 

Keep in mind, these marketplaces are supposed to represent the epitome of premium ad inventory. Instead, they resemble a programmatic version of a bait-and-switch tactic — enticing unsuspecting advertisers only to deceive them with subpar offerings.

“How can we be talking about MFAs in this day and age?,” asked a senior marketer, who exchanged anonymity for candor. The exec asked the question because the business they work for has tried to avoid buying low-value ad inventory by trying to buy as directly as possible from premium publishers. 

“We’ve done a lot on our side to strip out the number of SSPs [we buy from] and create more direct routes to publishers,” continued the marketer. “MFAs are crazy high.”

As if these issues weren’t bad enough, there’s potential for a worse scenario. The audit shed light on the fate of programmatic dollars, but here’s the kicker: it focused on a limited scope — only three demand-side platforms, six supply-side platforms, and three ad verification firms. The largest independent ad tech vendor, The Trade Desk, was absent from the audit, leaving marketers with an incomplete picture, like a puzzle missing a vital piece. 

“Without the right marketing tech stack and partners you will find it hard to ensure your programmatic campaigns run on premium inventory and with impactful placements to drive meaningful outcomes,” said Rhys Williams, the tech and activation lead at media agency the7stars, which has created a managed, fully transparent end-to-end programmatic supply chain for clients. 

Looking back, maybe the audit’s true value lies in what it failed to uncover: why marketers continue to spend money on advertising that lacks proper accountability? 

The answer is a dysfunctional reality: Marketers have developed an insatiable appetite for programmatic campaigns, lured by the promise of abundant quantities, cost efficiency, and the wink-wink of exceptional performance. Unfortunately, their media agencies, industry trade associations, and ad tech entities have a vested interest in perpetuating this addiction, discouraging any attempts to break free. They act like this because if they don’t, they would struggle to make money from what is a commoditized market. 

Programmatic advertising never set out to play tricks on advertisers like this. But in the frenzy of its rapid growth, transparency and accountability got left behind. Marketers did try to fix these issues by getting rid of unnecessary middlemen, prioritizing reliable inventory, and giving advertisers more say through supply-path optimization.  But, truth be told, these efforts haven’t quite delivered the results the industry expected. In fact, they have sometimes made it easier for agencies and ad tech vendors to play with the numbers and manipulate their profits.

”I’m not saying there’s any voluntary collusion here, because in game theory you can have games where there’s involuntary collusion,”  Tom Triscari, the programmatic consultant who finished the ANA’s report, told attendees at a fringe session hosted by TRUSTX and the ANA at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity. “I don’t want to say it’s ‘too big to fail’ but there’s a lot of vested interests … maybe it’s just best to live in a [fairytale land] than face the alternative [reality].” 

The participation numbers in the audit speak volumes. Despite 67 ANA members expressing initial interest in the study, only 21 actually took part, revealing the reluctance to face the truth head-on.

“As clients, we’ve probably not done enough to fix this [transparency issue],” said a marketing procurement director at a CPG business, who agreed to talk candidly but on condition of anonymity. “We tend to want to have our cake and eat it — particularly when it comes to commercial decisions. Clients need to do a better job upfront (ie at pitch time) of outlining exactly what their expectations are of digital.”

Similar rhetoric has echoed through previous audits, but unfortunately, it often amounts to little more than empty words. While there are occasional instances of advertisers going the extra mile for transparency, they are few and far between. For most marketers, the potential benefits simply do not outweigh the risks of rupturing existing business relationships. Pushing for complete transparency and audit rights can sometimes feel contradictory in those circumstances. After all, transparency and profit margins rarely align, leading to relentless downward pressure more often than not.

This is why efforts to rebuild the programmatic supply chain from scratch have consistently struggled to gain momentum. The financial ramifications are substantial, while the potential benefits remain distant for numerous stakeholders. 

As a result, a cautious approach has been adopted, focusing on gradually refining supply chains. This strategy involves implementing standardized contractual terms for data access and sharing, as well as harmonizing data across ad tech platforms and transaction IDs. 

However, these incremental measures frequently fail to keep pace with the rapid rate of change. Consequently, the pursuit of transparency turns into a frustrating game of whack-a-mole — a continuous cycle of identifying and addressing various issues.

That being said, doing nothing would be even worse. 

Rick Corteville, Lenovo’s media chief, said the preliminary results of the ANA’s programmatic transparency study were a vindication of his team’s decision to steer clear of buying media on open marketplaces. 

The electronics manufacturer has gone about implementing a blended media strategy over the past 12 months by taking greater control of the reins while also working with Stagewell Partners.

“We will invest more in programmatic,” he told Digiday, “but via direct deals, the performance [of open marketplace buying] doesn’t bear out. We use performance metrics to weed out waste.” 

This is a good start for any advertiser, but private marketplaces should not be seen as a foolproof solution for transparency. The ANA audit proved how marketers can easily fall into the trap of assuming they are accessing premium inventory, only to discover that they have unknowingly engaged with MFA sites.

“Eliminating programmatic waste is a noble and worthwhile goal, and everyone needs to do their part, but more now needs to be done at the industry level on creating, and showcasing actual solutions — not just restating the problems,” said Cameron Church, CEO of Watching That, a monitoring and analytics platform for video.

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