Media buyers weigh the sledgehammer or the scalpel approach to MFA classification 

Media buyers (and publishers for that matter) are still waiting on a clearly defined list of qualities that determine if a site is made-for-advertising (MFAs) or not. Without one, a lot is left open to interpretation

Some consultancies, like Jounce Media, and verification firms, like DoubleVerify, have taken the initiative to try and create more clarity in different manners — like the former’s cut-and-dry MFA list, or the latter’s graduated tiered classification approach.

When Digiday asked five media buyers which methodology — the sledgehammer or the scalpel — was winning them over, most buyers said that both options had to be approached with caution while the panic was still settling. Everyone said they weren’t entirely sold on any third-party’s guidance and wanted to wait for an industry standard.

“We would be open to a third-party maintaining a list of standards, but it would really be a lot better if it were an industry standard. That’s the same thing that we’ve done with safety. GARM established brand safety standards, there’s the ground floor … and all the verification partners use the GARM floor as their minimum standard,” said a media buyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The scalpel approach

The lack of a universal definition for MFAs in the media industry has created a great deal of pause when it comes to taking a hard and fast approach to eliminating all MFAs.

“The term MFA is problematic and any sort of master inclusion or exclusion list that exists… is incredibly problematic because it’s going to, without fail, lump in sites that don’t look as pretty and that might have different types of ads on them, which is going to further marginalize small businesses, local journalism, diverse-owned [media companies], and basically any business that’s trying to grow,” said the first media buyer.

The buyer said that their agency does use an inclusion list of 16,000 domains to avoid MFAs from their programmatic buys, however it’s created with third-party consultancy and is updated on a rolling basis using both an algorithm and human vetting. They added that this was necessary because the technology involved in creating the inclusion list once misclassified a Condé Nast site as MFA. What’s more, their inclusion list is integrated with their DE&I domain inclusion list to make sure that the MFA list does not eliminate multicultural media partners. 

To try and give this cohort of buyers more peace of mind, DoubleVerify created a new graduated categorization strategy for MFAs that gives advertisers more of a choice in whether or not they were comfortable with a certain threshold of ad behaviors typical of MFA publishers, said Jack Smith, global chief innovation officer at DoubleVerify.

The high category has seven or more characteristics commonly found in MFA sites. The medium tier has five or six and the lowest tier has four or less.

  • Significant ad density in comparison to the actual content on the page
  • Frequent ad refreshing
  • Monetization is predominantly dependent on paid traffic sources
  • Low organic traffic to the site
  • Endless scrolling or clicking within the same domain
  • Verbatim content duplication across various websites
  • Low ad intensity

“Our goal was to allow [for a] better level of transparency and ultimately choice on the advertiser’s side to say, ‘This is what I define as MFA,’ and allow them to implement it that way, or at least understand how it’s working,” said Smith.

When asked if they were considering implementing DoubleVerify’s MFA tiering tools, the buyer said that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’d recommend DV’s MFA classification scale, but they would need to vet it first. 

“We’d love for others to be able to help us and potentially take this task off of my team’s plate, but at the same time, we don’t have full transparency into everyone’s methodology yet, nor do we have a standard across the industry,” the buyer said.

Melissa Ilardi, vp of media and strategy at Media Two Interactive, echoed that sentiment that guidance from an organization like DoubleVerify is welcome, especially since “there may be MFA sites that convert just fine, given that there was something that drove the user there in the first place,” but buyers need to make sure to test that offering to make sure any additional CPMs are worth it and how their clients’ campaign results are ultimately impacted. 

Leah Askew, svp and head of precision media at Digitas North America, said that her initial response to the MFA crackdown was to follow a “cut and dry” approach, like a definitive MFA list.  

After speaking with smaller publishers, particularly those in the DE&I category, Askew said that she learned that many rely on having more ad units on a page or buy traffic to grow and fulfill campaign demands, which she doesn’t want to punish them for. 

“For that reason, while this topic is settling, I am a bit interested in testing the DV approach,” said Askew. “My biggest concern if I follow a staunch rule, like Jounce’s, is that I’m concerned for my DE&I strategy.”

The sledgehammer approach

The other school of thought is to take a very hard line approach to calling an MFA an MFA, which is the method that Jounce Media’s founder Chris Kane has taken. 

The Jounce definition for MFA is very narrow because even though MFA sites make up a large part of the bidstream, Kane said they very specifically are “publishers that are in the business of ad arbitrage.” 

“But that doesn’t mean that everything that’s not MFA is high quality. There’s other subjectively, but also objectively, very, very low quality supply on the internet that should also be avoided by buyers. We call that cheap reach,” said Kane. 

A second media buyer who spoke with Digiday anonymously for this story said that while their agency works with Jounce on MFA site classification, they’re still “aligning” on how cheap reach inventory and other categorizations fit in with how they buy programmatic inventory given it’s more complicated than taking the sledgehammer to MFAs. 

“It’s not like MFA where it’s chopping off a domain. It is chopping out individual sellers, placements, things like that, at a much more granular level. And that’s why getting closer to the publisher gets rid of that because they’re not going to sell that to you [cheap reach inventory] directly. That’s going to come through more faceless programmatic pipes,” said the second buyer.  

Jounce doesn’t work with DoubleVerify, but Kane said that DV’s stratified approach to MFA classification seems similar to how Jounce classifies cheap reach. Meaning that at DV’s highest tier are sites that are made-for-ad arbitrage, and the subsequent levels focus on the “chronically non-viewable” ad units that Jounce buckets as “cheap reach.”

“Made-for-advertising carries a connotation that does not line up with quality local journalism, and so we just think it’s appropriate to have a different word,” said Kane. Because as the buy-side progresses in eliminating low quality ad inventory in the name of MFA, “there’s a risk that [the rug gets pulled out from under] household name publishers as well.” 

Cheap reach is the “next biggest thing” that Kane wants to tackle in Jounce’s pursuit of making the programmatic bidstream healthier, but he said his hope is that what happened in the MFA crackdown with publishers getting demonetized essentially overnight won’t happen again. 

“I very much hope that the cheap reach problem doesn’t get solved by blocking, but that it gets solved by rewarding publishers that have the highest quality products,” said Kane. 

The second buyer added that if a publisher comes to them and is able to “prove that our fears are unfounded,” then they will reconsider their placement on an MFA list.

“I know the process always seems quite cut and dry … But really, it is a case of we don’t want to restrict our clients from appearing on high quality content in any way, shape or form. But if there are warning flags, we need to address them,” said the second buyer.

A third buyer said that any binary approaches to eliminating MFA sites is a problem, be it through exclusion lists or inclusion lists, because they’re really hard to go back and regularly update. However, they would like a common protocol to follow in order to remove some of the biases and human errors that come from trying to maintain an internally built list. 

“We’re looking for adherence to a protocol. The problem is the protocol is ambiguous at times and sometimes non-existent. So we get to a place where I feel compelled as a person at the center center of a holding company to be like, ‘OK, we’re going to make our own definition’ … The problem becomes very quickly when you are one person at a holding company that represents one out of every $3 media dollars spent in the United States, that’s a little bit too powerful,” the buyer said.

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