Media Briefing: Why media buyers keep pressing publishers for third-party verification

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

This week’s Media Briefing polled media buyers on the role that verification firms like IAS and DoubleVerify play in the programmatic market, despite publishers’ lamenting that they get the short end of the stick when it comes to brand safety.

  • Varied on verification firms
  • The Rundown: Spotify’s Stream On event
  • Publishers square up with platforms over AI, WaPo’s conflict of interest and more

Varied on verification firms

The key hits: 

  • News publishers are fed up with verification firms intervening in their ability to earn programmatic advertising revenue. 
  • While media buyers recognize the situation is imperfect, buying programmatically without the assurance of a third-party verification firm isn’t plausible, particularly in the open marketplace. 
  • Even in private marketplace and programmatic guaranteed deals, buyers are hesitant to rely solely on what publishers say regarding their content’s brand safety. 

News publishers are increasingly frustrated with how much of a say verification firms like Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify have in their programmatic advertising businesses. But for the advertisers and agencies buying that inventory, these firms play a necessary, though imperfect, role. 

“When there is a new technology [in] the marketplace, there’s the behemoth that initiates the technology, and then someone comes in and perfects the technology. [This] is just one of those growing pains,” said a media buyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We swung the pendulum to an extreme” where the technology was created to try and help advertisers find brand-safe and suitable environments, but now publishers are taking a hit, they added. 

Publishers including The Guardian and The Independent have said that data scraping performed by third-party verification firms creates slowdown in page and ad load times. When content is incorrectly flagged as not being brand-safe – in the publishers’ opinion –  monetization decreases by nearly 30%, according to The Guardian’s svp of advertising in North America, Luis Romero.  

Ultimately when asked if they thought the role of verification firms are critical in the open programmatic marketplace, all five media buyers who spoke to Digiday for this article said yes. When asked if the number of private marketplace (PMP) and programmatic guaranteed (PG) deals were increasing to circumvent some of the verification firms’ input – something that publishers are working to sell more of in order to circumvent the issues caused by verification firms – the answer was a bit more nuanced. 

“As more and more brands are buying programmatic media, the role of verification will only grow in importance, as will the scrutiny of how the data is sourced,” said Mike Tasik, director of media at advertising agency MMI. When asked if publishers’ in-house brand safety and verification practices were appealing enough to shift the dollars from the open marketplace to PG deals or PMPs, he said, “Yes, but only if they’re leveraging a verification tool that is universal versus a proprietary option.” 

As it appears, verification firm data and the grades they assign publishers’ content for brand safety, suitability, fraud and viewability is the common currency among media buyers operating in the open programmatic marketplace, and in their programmatic direct dealings with publishers as well. 

“We start to trust [verification firms’] metrics as a currency [and] use verification data to pay [publishers] based off of [their] numbers,” said a second media buyer who was granted anonymity in exchange for candor. 

Publishers have been trying to put more of the control back in their own hands. But buyers don’t seem to be convinced. 

“Two or three years ago, publishers like CNN and Fox News came to us and they had built their own brand safety and suitability solutions in-house, because they had the resources to do it,” said another media buyer who was granted anonymity in exchange for candor. 

However, these solutions were not enough to win over the buyer. Despite the publishers’ best intentions for themselves and their advertisers, they said that this walled garden approach was unscalable and therefore unsustainable. 

“If every single publisher builds their own tools, we’re now in an ecosystem where the brand has multiple currency discussions. It becomes very challenging for brands to sift through the clutter of that multicurrency conversation,” the second media buyer added. “I don’t think we as buyers, especially in a digital space, want to divert from [the] current currencies” for brand safety and suitability that are provided by entities like IAS and DoubleVerifiy. 

Meanwhile, the idea that each publisher is able to define their own parameters for verification rather than using a universal model is concerning, Tasik argued, given that it puts more pressure on agencies to differentiate the publishers’ standards from one another and how the quality of the data is ultimately impacted. 

For other media buyers, the news category “requires special attention” and having a strong relationship with a specific publisher can make PMP and PG deals based on in-house verification data more appealing. 

“With the news, it’s more about credibility and transparency of the news publisher. We know exactly where we’re going to be [and because of that] maybe we [will] adjust our brand safety and suitability settings,” said Molly Schultz, svp and group partner of digital investment and innovation at UM Worldwide. “If you have the ability and the resources within your team and the publisher is willing to have that conversation, I do think there’s a scenario where you can potentially even get away from using brand safety tags and rely on your direct work with those partners.” 

In general, Schultz added that there is a gradual movement to the prioritization of PMPs and PG deals over the open marketplaces because those conversations give buyers “more control and peace of mind” about where their clients’ ads are running.

“If a publisher is putting a deal together, and they’re applying their own safety settings, it’s definitely worth considering. But if we’re buying programmatically, we can apply additional settings [ from third-party verification firms on top of that]. So it really does come down to testing,” said Melissa Ilardi, vp of media and strategy at Media Two Interactive. 

Ultimately, it comes down to the media buyers not relying on any singular verification firm’s or publisher’s data. “As buyers, it’s definitely our job to not just set it and forget it, but constantly do our homework on the backend and make sure that we’re comfortable with where our clients’ dollars are being spent,” Ilardi said. 

What we’ve heard

“Something we do too is clue the audience into what’s about to come. On [videos that use TikTok’s quote-tweet-style stitching feature] we’ll often put the phrase ‘stitch incoming’ so that the audience knows that [they] might have seen this video already floating around the internet but we have something to add to it.”

– Stephanie Scrafano, NBC News’ director of social platforms on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast.

The Rundown: Spotify’s Stream On event

Spotify, it seems, is following TikTok’s playbook to get people to listen — and watch — more podcasts on its platform. The company yesterday unveiled a new TikTok-like feed — among other new, podcast-specific features — at its Stream On event held in Los Angeles.

Here are some other key details from the event:

  • Spotify has more than 100 million podcast listeners.
  • Since launching the Spotify Audience Network (or SPAN, the ad network that allows podcasters to monetize their video and audio content) in 2021, monthly payout to opted-in publishers has grown by nearly 50%.
  • NPR is the latest publisher to join SPAN.
  • Soon, Spotify will allow listeners who subscribe to creators’ Patreon accounts to listen to their exclusive content on the Spotify app.

Features to improve podcast discoverability

Spotify’s new podcast subfeed will display previews of the “most engaging” part of a podcast episode (determined by machine learning) as a user scrolls through the feed, Maya Prohovnik, vp and head of podcast product at Spotify, told Digiday. If the podcast episode has video, it will show that in the feed – if it doesn’t, it will show an animated graphic or transcription of the episode.

The idea is that these 30-second snippets will help listeners find new podcasts and help creators find new audiences – one of the biggest challenges for podcasters. 

Spotify will also now autoplay podcasts, so that after a listener finishes an episode it will play another based on that listener’s preferences. 

Push into video podcasts

Spotify is combining its podcast creation platform Anchor with its Spotify for Podcasters platform, so now all creators (not just the ones with shows hosted on Anchor) can upload video podcasts and add Q&As and polls to episodes. Megaphone, Spotify’s hosting solution for publishers, will be integrated into Spotify for Podcasters in the future, execs at the event said.

Spotify users will also have the option to switch between watching and listening to a podcast – similar to the feature YouTube announced a few weeks ago. When asked if Spotify was competing for YouTube’s dominance as the home for video podcasts, Prohovnik said the new tools are a response to the growth of video podcasts.
“We hear from both creators and listeners that they’re starting to expect video,” she said. “More and more [creators] are experimenting with it.” — Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

$10 million: The amount of money that Vice Media allegedly owes to tech consultancy Wipro, the latest in a series of vendors that are chasing non-payment fees from the digital publisher. 

51%: The number of Gen Zers (aged 16- to 24-years-old) who pay for or donate to news publications, compared to 63% of younger Millennials (aged 25- to 31-years-old) and 67% of older Millennials (aged 32- to 40-years-old).

10,000-plus: The number of employees that Gannett shed since its merger with GateHouse in 2019, representing nearly half of the 21,300 staffers that were employed by the company that year. 

62%: The percentage of publishers who get at least a little revenue from affiliate commerce, up from 52% six months ago, according to a Digiday+ Research survey taken by 112 publishers. 

3,774: The number of media jobs that were lost in 2022.

What we’ve covered

Podcasters hope to find new listeners on the YouTube Music app: 

  • Podcasters view YouTube’s latest announcement to soon add podcasts to its YouTube Music app as an opportunity to find more listeners, according to conversations with four podcast executives — at a time when listenership has slowed.
  • But one podcast executive — who traded anonymity for candor — wondered what would stop a listener from switching to listening to a podcast on Spotify or Apple instead?

Read more about YouTube’s podcasting ambitions here

The Washington Post offers bundle subscription with Headspace app: 

  • The Washington Post began offering a subscription bundle this week with the meditation app Headspace. 
  • It’s an effort by the Post to market its recently expanded wellness coverage to those that aren’t frequent Post readers, and to increase its subscriber base. 

Read more about the new subscription bundle here

‘A clean, unadulterated supply chain’: The Trade Desk on a year into its OpenPath direct deals with publishers:

  • It’s been a year since The Trade Desk started buying ads directly from some of the biggest publishers — a move it called OpenPath. And what a year it’s been. 
  • OpenPath is not only being used by some of the most recognizable brands in publishing, it’s also being used by some of the most visited ones too. 

Learn more about OpenPath’s first year of impact on the publishing industry here.

A year on, The Trade Desk’s Open Path is moving toward its goals, but challenges persist:

  • There are around 4,000 domains, including publishers, that are actively selling impressions to advertisers through OpenPath.
  • It’s not the sort of scale that would normally set pulses racing but OpenPath has no intention of achieving that scale.

Read more about why publishers are or are not considering OpenPath here.

Philanthropy-supported publishers are seeing an uptick in local, individual funders:

  • There is a continued trend of building philanthropic revenue streams for news publishers, both on the local and national scale. 
  • But a new and growing subset of the coalition is actually individual funders and local donors who are part of the Indiana community as well.

Learn more about publishers’ philanthropic revenue streams here.

What we’re reading

The Washington Post’s publisher is facing a conflict of interest: 

Last month, four WaPo execs met with the Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel to discuss the possibility of the publication hosting a Republican presidential debate, reported Semafor. After said meeting, Post publisher Fred Ryan took a second meeting with McDaniel to discuss the same topic, but from his role as the chairman of the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Foundation.

Google and Microsoft will be hearing from publishers if AI chatbots keep scraping their content: 

Search engine operators Google and Microsoft are going to be worsening the fight with media companies and their new AI chatbots are to blame, according to Insider. Publishers’ content is turning up in the chatbots’ responses without the permission of the publishers and now they want to figure out a way to be compensated for the use of their content. 

Graydon Carter wants to return to print: 

The former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter is planning to expand his digital, subscription-based magazine Air Mail into print as well as launch new editorial verticals, according to Axios. 

Women journalists are still facing rampant harassment due to their work: 

New research from Reach and Women in Journalism found that in a survey of more than 400 women journalists in the U.K., three-quarters said they have felt either threatened or unsafe in their work, while one-fifth of those journalists have considered leaving the media industry altogether, the Press Gazette reported. 

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