Row over MFA label for publishers hits boiling point

Row over MFA label for publishers hits boiling point

Publishers have recently been put on edge by concerns that they could be labelled as akin to made-for-advertising (MFA) sites.

According to a US Association of National Advertisers (ANA) survey conducted last year, MFA sites received 21% of all ad impressions and 15% of digital adspend, despite being widely considered as a low-quality medium for advertising.

As such, adtech vendors such as Integral Ad Science (IAS) have been working to deliver tools for marketers to better avoid MFA sites as part of their broader goals of addressing issues related to brand risk, fraud and viewability.

Likewise, media agencies have taken steps to introduce their own protections against MFA sites. WPP’s media investment arm, GroupM, in partnership with adtech company Jounce Media, announced in August 2023 that it had moved to take out MFA sites from inclusion lists for all advertisers.

With their websites often accompanied by advertising, legitimate publishers, which employ journalists and commit to editorial standards, worry their quality content could be unfairly lumped in with MFA sites — especially as there is no industry-wide standard for what qualifies as MFA.

Publishers that sometimes resort to using “MFA-like tactics”, for example, could be labelled MFA despite the distinction in the underlying content produced for their websites.

By-product of non-human planning

Joe Capildeo, strategy partner at WPP agency EssenceMediacom, thinks this would go against the efforts to funnel adspend away from MFA sites and towards more quality digital environments.

“MFA sites have grown in use as they deliver on the ‘quality’ objectives of programmatic buying, namely viewability and proxy attention metrics,” he tells The Media Leader. “With targetable digital signals being lost in our privacy-first internet, many brands optimising to these quality objectives find themselves skewing away from high-value publications and instead delivering on high-clutter, high-frequency MFA sites. MFA sites are riddled with bots and are a by-product of non-human planning.”

Travis Lusk, group director for digital media and adtech, North America, at media and marketing consultancy Ebiquity, tells The Media Leader: “At Ebiquity, we use the MFA definition that each of our brand clients choose to use. That could be the definition provided by the ANA or an individual adtech vendor. It could also be a custom definition as prescribed by the brand itself. We are agnostic in that regard.”

IAS began a beta trial of a suite of new anti-MFA tools that were trained against Sincera’s library of metadata and Jounce Media’s list of MFA domains in October 2023 and released it to market in March. Among the tools is an additional category known as “ad clutter” sites.

According to IAS, ad clutter sites are those that exhibit a high ad-to-content ratio, high ad density, the presence of auto-refresh ads, a high refresh rate and/or the presence of autoplay video ads.

IAS defines MFA sites as “web pages built to conduct ad arbitrage and feature low-quality content (eg. spam sites or ad farms) created solely to serve ads”.

Scott Pierce, IAS’s head of fraud protection, wrote in a LinkedIn post: “We reached a consensus definition for MFA with our clients: sites that are conducting ad arbitrage. We believe MFA stands for ‘made for arbitrage’. […] The question we ask is binary: is a site conducting ad arbitrage — yes/no? We answer this question by asking two more questions: 1. Is the majority of traffic organic or paid? 2. Is the primary purpose of the site to deliver content or ads?

“If the majority of traffic is paid (based on our supply chain data) and the primary purpose of the site is ads (based on our site characteristic data), then the site is conducting ad arbitrage and is therefore MFA. It’s that simple.”

How fair is the MFA label?

In an exchange with The Media Leader, IAS declined to disclose the names of specific publishers it has labelled as either MFA or ad clutter.

A spokesperson said: “We ensure publishers have the opportunity to view reports and gain insights on the quality of their inventory so they can make the necessary adjustments to avoid being flagged as MFA or ad clutter. By making these adjustments, publishers can actually increase the quality and value of their inventory and drive greater revenue.

“Our guidance for buyers will be to avoid MFA sites, not ad clutter sites. We recommend buyers monitor the performance of ad clutter sites. If ad clutter sites deliver meaningful outcomes (eg. conversions) for a buyer, then they should continue to advertise on these sites.”

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For Lusk, excessive ad clutter alone “will not get a publisher flagged as MFA”, but “publishers that might be considered legitimate or mainstream will come on and off MFA lists from time to time, because of actions they take to ‘juice’ their monetisation or traffic numbers in order to fulfil demand”.

Examples of “MFA-like” behaviour, according to Lusk, include: sourcing traffic from content syndication companies or other cheap cost-per-click providers that are loaded with bot traffic; deploying clickbait-oriented creative; increasing ad loads temporarily; or increasing the refresh rate of ads on a page.

“The piece of [publisher] content in question might be a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of journalism,” he continues. “However, if the page it is published on dedicates 60% of the screen real estate to ads, refreshes the ads every few seconds, spawns auto-play videos and pop-ups and generates 90% of its traffic from paid sources, it is going to get flagged as MFA… regardless of how great the content is.”

Actually, says Association of Online Publishers (AOP) managing director Richard Reeves, publishers are already incentivised to create the most user-friendly experience — otherwise audiences will go elsewhere.

“Publishers recognise the single biggest asset is a user and they aren’t going to want to compromise or in any way irritate that asset,” he says. “So I think that we already have, broadly speaking, safeguards to ensure that we are all focused on delivering the fastest and best experience for our users.”

In fact, citing the AOP’s own research, Reeves suggests that poor user experience was being caused in part by slow load times driven by verification vendors’ own tools, which are attached to ads delivered on publisher webpages.

Conflicts of interest

Regardless, that legitimate news publishers could potentially be labelled MFA has raised concerns. Publishers argue that they are fundamentally distinct from MFA in the quality of journalistic content on offer and are undeserving of the label.

Furthermore, according to Danny Spears, chief operating officer at premium publishing alliance Ozone, labelling high-ad-load publishers as MFA would do little to ameliorate the problem of poor publisher website user experience; rather, it would more likely exacerbate it.

He points out: “Fining people who have already been taxed and then kicking them in the balls — the question I would ask is: what do you think that is going to mean in terms of ad load? More or less? It’s going to be more, because you’ve just kneecapped them.”

Publishers’ general scepticism around MFA labelling also speaks to a broader lack of trust between them and adtech vendors.

“This is just the same stuff over and over and over,” Spears continues. “A problem gets identified in the long tail, it gets transposed on premium publishers, fear is induced among the marketer community and then someone asserts themselves in the middle.”

While the AOP accepts that verification vendors have a role to play to ensure brand-safe ad placement, Reeves explains, vendors are perhaps overstepping their agreed-on purpose for publishers, especially through creating definitions for MFA sites without consulting them.

“If they are suddenly operating something that signposts or denotes an MFA site without any transparency around what that criteria or standard is, without any industry agreement around definition or standard, and purely under their own steam without consensus, wider discussion or debate, then that would be problematic,” Reeves says. “But it wouldn’t be unusual.”

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Reeves tells The Media Leader that verification vendors have “made hay out of scaremongering” by making marketers paranoid in order to construct demand for their own products.

Lusk adds: “The verification vendors face a classic conflict of interest when it comes to MFA sites.”

He explains that these vendors have made millions by classifying MFA sites as highly viewable, low ad fraud and high brand safety: “They (generally) are paid based on impression volume. Clients pay a CPM to use their tools based on the number of impressions the vendor’s technology was used to measure. MFA sites are often an inexpensive (low media CPM) source of impressions that otherwise pass all of the ad verification safety checks.

“Now, the verification vendors are coming to market with tools to help brands avoid the very same sites that they’ve been blessing for years. Verification vendors do not want brands to buy fewer impressions. If they did, they would make less money. Or they would have to increase their rates.”

‘Sticking plaster’ solution

For Spears, the issue goes back to the marketer, who ultimately holds the power to create change.

“If the marketer doesn’t like any site, for whatever reason, they can make an objective decision. They’re empowered to do so and they don’t have to spend with that site,” he suggests. “The issue is the lack of objectivity and accountability that marketers have over the direction of their spend in the programmatic advertising ecosystem.

“That is not to say that they’re stupid, but it is to say that too much control has been outsourced to third-party algorithms, verification companies and things that folk can’t explain themselves. That is a big, fundamental underlying issue on the marketer side of the fence.”

So rather than marketers taking the time to “be objective” in their search for quality ad inventory, Spears says, “what ultimately happens is a tech vendor pops up and says: ‘I’ve got a sticking plater for this. Let’s add a sticking plaster.'”

For EssenceMediacom, the strategy has been to move planners and buyers away from demand-side platforms that optimise towards quality metrics across massive inclusion lists.

“Each advertiser should have a tailored and limited inclusion list with a focus on high-quality, relevant content, which is regularly reviewed and either added to or refined,” Capildeo says. “Advertisers then need to establish the metrics that matter to them to deliver growth and have a measurement structure in place that doesn’t rely on cookies but quickly demonstrates the value of the media. This is not attribution but contribution and involves planning for humans rather than optimising for machines.”

Reeves agrees, adding that advertisers should take more personal accountability for their media selection when trying to avoid MFA. Rather than chasing after the long tail to target people for “the lowest common denominator possible”, he suggests marketers should look to flock towards higher-quality publisher environments.

Spears summarises the solution even more simply: “Stop buying crap.”

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