We need to stop making media crime pay

‘We need to stop making media crime pay’

Digital media buyers need to ask difficult but crucial questions about what makes up the audience they’re paying for. If the tech providers can’t tell you openly, be prepared to walk away.

Of all the adages we’re spoon-fed by our parents and society, the one we want to believe is that ‘crime doesn’t pay’, but in ad tech, this isn’t the case. When it comes to ad fraud, that moral victory that sees the bad guys getting their comeuppance and order restored simply doesn’t happen.

By its very nature, crime does pay — it’s why people do it — and the less likely they are to get punished, the more they will commit it. That’s why consequences are so important so that crime is made not to pay. But when we consider the scourge of ad fraud, it’s open season, as there’s little chance of being caught and punished.

Difficulties in legislating

Yes, we know that millions of pounds annually go ‘missing’ in the UK programmatic ecosystem. Some of this is due to how data is used and inventory sold; some because the system is opaque and open to fraud. But a big part of the problem is that it’s hidden, so in not being obvious, is it even illegal?

Governments have historically been woefully incapable of legislating around technology. Lawmakers can’t keep up with the pace of change or even understand the technologies. AI-produced content is flooding the web and will only increase in proliferation because no one will legislate it. But it’s not governments’ fault as such: they simply lack the necessary insights, so don’t know how to approach regulation.

So where do we start? Well, the best place is to identify the problems with ad fraud and where these stem from.

Many industry observers, including myself, will gloomily tell you that the ecosystem is the problem. However, adopting this mindset offers an excuse that gives zero opportunity to affect change.

From my perspective, the core issue is that everything else stems from transparency, or the lack of it: you can’t see your ad, you don’t know where it’s appearing, how much exactly you paid for it, and what you’ve actually bought.

Easy changes that make a difference

The opaque way we buy ad space creates multiple routes for fraud, all of which are being used at any given moment. And the risks are obvious, with advertisers wasting money and brands being compromised by appearing in questionable environments or next to fake news. And given the lack of visibility and that this fraud is being carried out at scale, it’s reasonable to look into where the money is being lost, who it is being lost to, and where it is ultimately going.

So what are the specific start points on which we can affect change? Well, in tackling ad fraud, I propose that brands start with a simple end goal – “I must be able to see a clear list of where my ads appeared and what I spent on them”. And from here, they must then build steps to reach this.

There are two actions brands and agencies should be taking right now and arguably have no excuse not to do:

1. Focus on addressing easy wins by buying direct from recognised publishers, using PMP deals more, and taking action to ensure they appear only on premium sites.

2. Question what the ’long tail’ is for. Is it just to ensure budgets get spent, or is it legitimately used to reach your audience on niche websites?

But in seeking to address these areas, what are the biggest remaining blockers?

Perhaps it should come as little surprise that SSPs are a focus at the moment. I’m sure any external advisor would almost certainly point to the packaging of impressions and the creation of opaque categories and audience groups as problematic. To me, it’s reminiscent of the bundling and selling of subprime mortgages that sparked the financial crisis in 2008. Just as with opaque audiences, no one understood what they were really buying.

We’ve seen Yahoo! recently shutter its SSP, and Disney choose to build its own ad server to manage demand rather than rely on partners. So if you’re working with SSPs, ask those difficult but crucial questions to understand what makes up the audience you’re buying. If they can’t tell you openly, be prepared to walk away. Or even consider focusing more on adding direct publisher’s ad servers to your stack to give you greater control.

Action requires everyone

At this point of maturity in programmatic, understanding how much was spent on a campaign and where it was spent should be easy. However, it’s not. But we should be — and must be — looking to achieve this so we can identify the bad actors and start addressing ad fraud.

It’s important to recognise there has been progress in the last 12 months, and this issue is being prioritised by brands and agencies alike. So who should be leading the charge?

Well, resolving this issue doesn’t sit with any individual company but the whole industry, so it’s reassuring that no one’s on their own in tackling it. Instead, we must all recognise our joint responsibility and start acting in unison. And an easy way is to get involved with the UK Stop Ad Fraud Coalition to ensure a coordinated approach. Because as well as galvanising the industry around this issue, it’s also engaging with government and the relevant regulatory authorities so the necessary legislation and punishments can be implemented.

It’s by taking both individual action and all working together that we can address ad fraud and ensure the bad guys do get their comeuppance so that crime won’t pay in ad tech.

Gareth Owen is chief commercial officer at mobile marketing platform Tickle Global.

This is the latest in a series of pieces The Media Leader is publishing this year in association with the industry anti-fraud coalition www.uksafc.org as part of our 2023 editorial mandate to champion trust in media.

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