Certainly, the online publishing industry outside the walled gardens has become less attractive to advertisers. Not only is ad fraud still rife in this environment, but traditional media simply doesn’t command the readership it once did – which in turn has led to many sites committing acts of self-harm in order to create more inventory. The walled gardens also offer the type of targeted user experience that traditional publishing can only dream of, with the promise of getting ads in front of a super-relevant audience being difficult to resist. And of course, whenever a dominant model takes hold of a market, it’s always easier to go with the flow than to buck the trend.
But there’s a more fundamental reason why the walled gardens have been allowed to grade their own homework. While it’s true that these platforms don’t provide the levels of transparency required for an outside party to accurately assess them, the fact is that even if brands and advertisers did have the necessary access and information, marketers simply aren’t qualified to grade traffic quality – it’s not their core competency. Even if they have the right verification tools, they lack the expertise to use them properly. Were advertisers forced to take responsibility for grading the traffic generated by the large platforms, the reality is they wouldn’t be able to cope.
Pushing the boundaries
While it may seem counter-intuitive to advocate a model where the seller is able to effectively charge for their services sight unseen, no other viable model currently exists to replace it. The ad tech ecosystem simply isn’t developed enough at this point to provide a decent alternative. Rather than being the villain of the piece, the walled gardens are the only players with the necessary in-house and third-party expertise to verify and grade the traffic on their networks. These companies have built themselves around having a sophisticated understanding of data and traffic patterns, so why wouldn’t they be in the best position to assess how an ad is performing? This “trust us, we know best” approach may stick in the craw of the bigger brands and advertisers who feel that more power should be in their hands, but right now, it’s the only game in town.
However, in the longer term, as the ad tech industry matures, it’s likely that this model will indeed change as not only advertisers but also governments demand more transparency in the online publishing world, from both media sites and the data & content platforms. Legislation will drive an opening up of the current model and eventually create internationally-accepted standards for ad verification that will ultimately put an end to anybody grading their own homework.
Breaking down barriers
There are a number of reasons why I believe this will happen. For a start, there’s basic business governance – governments can hardly condone a commercial environment where corporations are regularly defrauded of millions of dollars. And then there’s the question of maintaining a free press and open internet in an age of ‘fake news’, much of it a direct result of fraudulent activity. Budget that should be going to legitimate publishers is too often siphoned off by bad actors, making it increasingly difficult for the online news media to cover stories as thoroughly as they should.
But perhaps the most urgent reason for governments to intervene and legislate for ad transparency is that online fraud is a major source of finance for both criminal networks and terrorist organizations around the world. It’s seen as an easier and more lucrative way to fund black ops and launder money, and is a serious cause for concern at the higher levels of law enforcement. As such, it surely won’t be long until we see legislation being drafted to lift the lid on what has become a decidedly dark area of online commerce.
The ad world needs to prepare for this eventuality by following the example set by, for instance, the cybersecurity industry and creating a new layer of third-party auditing bodies and verification labs that can do the job of grading traffic when new transparency standards come into law. Existing organizations such as the MRC need to move beyond the simple accreditation of processes and ramp up their expertise in the technical benchmarking of solutions as well.
By requiring that all organizations in the online publishing industry – from the giant walled gardens to specialist media sites – are subject to the same levels of transparency, a new and leveler playing field can be created where verification is too important to be hidden from public view.