Fewer advertisers means more bad ads from ad exchanges

Larger advertisers fleeing from the open marketplace has cleared the way for smaller, sometimes subpar advertisers, slipping through filters and appearing on publisher sites.   

Magazine publisher Immediate Media has seen a handful of low-quality ads — retailers selling products from overseas containing adult-rated content — crop up in its BBC Good Food app or on pre-roll video ads. One bad ad only had 10 impressions, said digital advertising strategy director Dominic Perkins. 

“Through this whole lockdown period I’ve gone to our [supply-side platform] partners to ask what protection they have in place for bad debt — that was our biggest risk — and how they manage dodgy ads coming through,” he said.

The special-interest publisher doesn’t have a specific ad-verification partner to catch these ads, instead, it works with U.K. data ad tech consultancy RedBud to trace them. Immediate’s five SSP partners also have checks, like Google-owned malware detection company Spider, proprietary artificial intelligence platforms or more basic human monitoring.

Perkins stressed it’s a very small number of lower quality ads that are getting through. Often, it can be basic retargeting in the open exchange that mean readers see them. Although that’s not exactly a viable answer to satisfy inquiring readers.

Immediate Media fills a lot of inventory on the open exchange, mostly driven by BBC Good Food which accounts for roughly 74% of Immediate’s total traffic, according to Comscore. Naturally, BBC Good Food has seen a traffic spike over the last two months as people spend more time in their kitchens. In April, BBC Good Food served over 200 million pageviews, reaching over 50 million users, a 160% increase compared with April 2019, per the publisher’s stats. Comscore doesn’t have April data yet, but in March, the recipe site had 15.5 million unique visitors.

That increase in volume means that programmatic revenue for Immediate Media is up for the months of March, April and May compared with the same months last year, said Perkins. His team brings in roughly three-quarters of the publisher’s digital revenue. The overall picture is less rosy: Company revenue is down because of its reliance on print.

Immediate Media isn’t alone, and lower quality ads are cropping up across other premium publishers since traffic has spiked.

“There’s so much cheap inventory available, the quality of ads has really dropped, they are managing to get through the cracks,” said co-founder of RedBud Chloe Grutchfield. “We categorize the new domains we get every week, and maybe 10% of the domains we find are adult-rated, and those types of adverts are seen on normal magazine publishers.”

More supply from traffic highs and big advertisers pulling campaigns has depressed programmatic ad CPMs by between 10% and 20% overall, yet most publishers are reluctant to drop their floor price for fear of not clawing it back up. Smaller, scrappier players are able to win more bids and get their ads shown often on premium sites, said ad fraud researcher and consultant Augustine Fou. While there’s a lot of robust fraud verification tech and malvertising specialists, these typically check to see if the user is a bot or check the javascript code of the ad for malicious redirects, they don’t always scan the creative of the ad. 

“None check whether the message in the ad is good or crappy,” he said. “That is too subjective and no one wants to make that decision to mark something as ‘crappy.’ This also explains why ads for counterfeit N95 masks, miracle coronavirus cures are all getting through now.”

Magazine publisher Future Publishing had some flags for a potential increase in bad ads and fraud, and so tightened up the blacklists and reviewed its partners, which has quelled the problem. “I suspect the lower CPMs across the market at the moment are allowing more of these types of ads to buy premium inventory, but it will fade away across the market as CPMs rise,” said chief revenue officer Zack Sullivan. 

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Classifying a bad ad is a subjective process that requires enforcing criteria thresholds up the supply chain, said Matt O’Neill, general manager, Europe, The Media Trust. “We’ve categorized millions of ads since mid-March and, during that period, the amount of adult-related ads across our partners has doubled.”

“Publishers are generally taking ads that they might in the past have rejected due to quality issues or the advertiser category,” said O’Neill. “With depressed demand and bargain prices in the open market, I’ve heard from nearly all publisher clients that restrictions have loosened in this new economy.”

Despite these lower quality ads that are slipping through filters, the huge spikes in traffic have also caught the interest of fraudsters monetizing fake or malicious ads. These ads can masquerade as ads offering cryptocurrency or money-back claims to hijack personal data. Bad actors keep upping the sophistication to avoid detection, using tactics like masked URLs, clickjacking and auto redirecting to fake domains. 

The risk of fraud, or even crummy ads, is often the price paid with trading in the open marketplace. But with larger brands hopefully returning soon to the open marketplace, the risks should decrease. 

“We expect May to be the toughest month as more [advertisers] move out of direct to the open exchange, the good quality inventory they know is there,” said Perkins, adding that some ad budgets finish in April when it’s the end of the U.K. tax year. “We expect to start seeing the shoots of revenue coming through in June as people start moving back into retail.”

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