‘Brands turn a blind eye’: Confessions of a former agency exec on attribution scamming

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 →

Incentive-based structures at agencies and brands have a lot to answer for.

For the latest installment of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity in exchange for candor, we spoke to a seasoned former agency executive about how nefarious tactics like cookie bombing remain a popular way to jack up campaign numbers.

Answers have been edited for clarity and flow.

What are the common tactics used to inflate performance campaign metrics?
Attribution scamming, also referred to as cookie bombing, is still rife. Attribution models are still very much based on last-touch or last-click, where the last ad the consumer saw before they converted is credited for the conversion, even if it isn’t what actually drove them to convert. They may not have even seen it, but people use cookie bombing to make it look like an ad has driven a load of conversions or reduced their cost-per-acquisition.

Give me an example.
If I’m a consumer and I see a rich-media ad for an item, and after I go on my mobile and am influenced by this beautiful mobile ad, then I go onto Facebook and see another ad for the same thing, and only then do I go and visit the e-commerce site. But before I buy, I am then retargeted with a display desktop ad. Then I buy on that site, but the mobile or social ads don’t get credit, only the banner does. That’s the cookie-bombing strategies coming in, making it look like that’s driven the conversions.

Cookie bombing isn’t a new technique though. Why is it frustrating you now?
It’s still frustrating because cookie bombing and attribution scamming is where the ad dollars are being pushed, simply because it looks better on paper. That also means that despite people spending so much more time consuming media on mobile, the ad dollars aren’t flowing as fast to mobile.

Who is responsible for it?
It starts as a lack of deep education on the media landscape from the brand marketer’s side. You have a brand marketing manager, whose job it is to each week take a scorecard that shows their conversion numbers broken out by different channels, and put them a single Excel sheet to take to their CMO. A lot of brands I’ve worked with — their bonus structures are based on their scorecards. So the higher the conversion rates look on that scorecard, the better. So they then tell their agencies to get high numbers and the agencies want to look good to the client. The agencies should educate the client to say, “No, we need a mobile strategy” — but the agencies are also getting sucked in because they want to make the clients happy.

And the agencies likely have similar bonus structures.
Definitely. If they can send a scorecard to their client that says their cost-per-acquisition was more efficient week over week, then it looks great to the client. It’s just all about trying to beat those numbers.

So the brand marketers tell agencies to hit high figures by whatever means necessary?
In many cases, I do think the brand marketers know [what agencies are doing] and just turn a blind eye because it also looks good to their own bosses if the numbers look good.

Who loses out most from this?
Marketers are losing out because they’re spending all this money that is being pushed into non-viewable ads, not aesthetically pleasing ads or ads that don’t drive brand recall, even ads that aren’t being seen — they’re just shoved in there using cookie bombing to get that last-touch attribution. It’s a waste of marketers’ ad spend. It also hurts the publishers and vendors who are pushing to have better ads, and anyone trying to push for better creative and to make advertising more user-friendly. They lose out on ad spend because agencies don’t want to buy it if it doesn’t look as good for attribution. It’s very short-term thinking.

How prolific are we talking?
I’d say between 50 and 75 percent of [performance-driven] display advertising is influenced by it and has had ad dollars shifted toward attribution scamming. It’s happening the majority of the time for anything that is tied to conversion metrics across mobile and display. It’s like that time when millions of dollars of ad spend went to what was actually an accidental ad created by a Google employee, and the numbers proved that it performed better than other, really nice-looking banner ads. That’s very alarming when we are spending all our time and costly production on producing great creative. But that’s a great example of why cookie bombing works so well on paper — it’s just about cheating the tech.


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