‘More distrust in the marketplace’: Agency execs press pause on Forbes spend after domain spoofing report

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Amid all of the concerns that the made-for-arbitrage (née made-for-advertising) crackdown would unfairly impact premium publishers, Forbes has been called out by a report by advertising transparency vendor Adalytics for intentionally operating an MFA subdomain for years, unbeknownst to the buy-side until this month.  

Four agency executives told Digiday that it’s still too early into investigations to determine how much of their clients’ budgets were spent on ads displayed on Forbes’ subdomain (www3.forbes.com). However, early examinations revealed as much as 4 to 5% of Forbes impressions per client or 25% of an agency’s total client base’s impressions from Forbes were tied to the subdomain.

Ultimately though, the total portion of a client’s budget spent on the subdomain isn’t the biggest concern amongst agency execs. The fact that their clients’ ads were being displayed on this subdomain for years, undetected by verification firms, DSPs, SSPs and even within the agencies themselves reveals that major gaps exist in programmatic reporting to detect domain spoofing. And even more concerningly, how widespread is this practice? 

Impact to clients

According to the Adalytics report — which was first reported on by The Wall Street Journal — the since-shuttered subdomain (www3.forbes.com) had been reposting articles from the main Forbes domain but loading them up with upwards of 19 times the amount of ad spots (seven or eight ads per article versus 150). The subdomain practiced main common traits of an MFA site, per guidelines created by companies like Jounce Media. But the real problem, according to the four agency execs, is that they had no idea that they were purchasing ad inventory on the subdomain on behalf of their clients.

One agency exec, who spoke on condition of anonymity, estimated that of the impressions they bought from Forbes, 15 to 25% came from the publisher’s subdomain, accounting for a few thousand dollars. “But that said, it doesn’t matter … When you overlook petty theft, broader problems manifest.”

“Based on the bidstream data I’ve seen … It’s more like four or five [percent of Forbes’ ad impressions] was coming from that subdomain,” said a second agency exec, who also spoke anonymously, referring to Forbes’ claim in The Wall Street Journal report that only 1% of impressions were tacked to the subdomain. “And that’s where it was visible. You don’t really know what was masked.”

Early findings showed 20% of Ebiquity’s client budgets spent on Forbes inventory went to the subdomain, according to chief strategy officer Ruben Schreurs, but he added that he cannot be confident in that estimation because the www3 inventory is misrepresented in the bidstream.

And given the level of exposure that The Wall Street Journal’s coverage gave to this breech, Schreurs said that clients’ C-suite execs have taken notice and a greater sense of urgency has been placed on determining how much money was tied to this subdomain and where the holes lie that need to be patched.

“It was shocking. It was a bar I didn’t think a place like Forbes would sink to,” said a third agency exec who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Forbes maintains that the subdomain was not intended to be used for ad arbitrage like the Adalytics report implied. According to a spokesperson, “The WSJ story based on Adalytics research is deeply misleading and misrepresents the scope and operation of a legacy Forbes sub-domain [sic]. The subdomain was developed as an alternative means to consume existing Forbes.com content and represented a very small user base.”

According to Similarweb, in March, Forbes’s subdomain only had 147,000 pageviews versus 37 million to the main domain. However, nearly all of the traffic to the subdomain came from display ads, including those operated by vendors like Outbrain.

“Because we value the trust of our partners and we wanted to eliminate any potential confusion, we shut down the subdomain, which was an insignificant part of our business. We have been connecting with clients one on one to address concerns directly,” Forbes’ spokesperson added.

Forbes in time-out

All of the agency execs said that in the short term — meaning until they’re confident that they’re buying exactly what they expect to be buying — they’ll pause any programmatic purchases of Forbes’ inventory. 

“To shut off Forbes forever is working against the need to support the ongoing strong journalistic efforts,” said Jay Friedman, CEO of Goodway Group. That said, “in the short term, we of course are not going to be buying Forbes until we understand the full [story] … But long term, this won’t be the last publisher that does something like this and we just simply need a system that helps us better detect when it’s happening, and a process for how to deal with it.” 

Friedman added they will recommend to clients that they not use some of the “traditional vendors” in the verification space given their inability to catch and report subdomains like this — i.e. DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science. 

“We’re not writing off Forbes entirely until we have more information as to what was the scale of this and how are they going to remedy this?” said Schreurs.

What does this mean about agency execs’ confidence levels for other premium publishers in the open market? There are varying opinions. 

“It would be naive of us to paint the industry with the same brush,” said the second agency exec. 

But the third agency exec said, “It hurts all other publishers, including good quality publications, because it just puts more distrust in the marketplace.” 

The third agency exec added that they only occasionally buy from Forbes in the open exchange for their client and they don’t have a direct relationship with Forbes. Therefore, from their initial findings, the subdomain only represents a “not a very material dollar amount.” However, their client, who remained unnamed to protect their identity, is already averse to advertising against news content and even though Forbes skews more toward business coverage, is still unnerved. 

“I don’t go chase the $0.25 CPM [on the open exchange] because I want to know I’m getting everything good from [a publisher] … but now I’m like, well, shit, the publisher is doing [the domain] spoofing. Now, maybe we should go back to buying the cheap stuff again. That’s not good for publishers,” said the third agency exec.

Pointing a finger 

Regardless of the amount of money that the buy-side knows or suspects was unknowingly directed to this subdomain, the biggest concern is figuring out how and why this went undetected for years by verification firms, DSPs and SSPs. And then figuring out how to patch the holes in the reporting. 

“For me, the core question it raises is why didn’t content verification partners catch this?” said the second agency exec, especially after a similar instance with Gannett in 2022 revealed these holes. 

“There’s a lot of money owed to advertisers beyond just Forbes,” said the first agency exec, pointing to the fees that get paid out to DSPs, SSPs and verification firms that didn’t catch this issue. 

“As far as the degree to which I would want to hold various players in the industry accountable, we are only going to work with those who want to be held accountable,” said Jay Friedman, CEO of Goodway Group.

And as for Forbes, “there is the much more important matter of how [does Forbes] manage the reputational damage that this will have,” said Schreurs.

https://digiday.com/?p=540805

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