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Has programmatic become problematic?

The rise of programmatic advertising has been nothing short of spectacular, with the IAB predicting that programmatic will account for 80-90% of display ad sales by 2019.

Its rapid growth is unsurprising given the problems it has solved, namely audience targeting and unsold inventory. By introducing real-time bidding (RTB) on every ad impression, advertisers can bid for the eyeballs of each individual user based on their browsing history and other data sources. Want to reach a 47 year old female, earning a fair whack who likes sports cars? No problem…

Brand safety becomes the hot topic

Except there was a problem. In March, The Times ran the headline: Big brands fund terror through online adverts. Their investigation focused on sites including YouTube where programmatic ads for major global brands were found to be alongside extremist content.

The fallout grew greater each day as more and more media agencies pulled their ads from Google’s ad exchange. As we noted on this blog when ads were pulled from alleged ‘fake news’ sites:

“Finding audience at the expense of losing control of the environment, suddenly doesn’t seem quite as smart.”

But it’s not just user-generated content sites like YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr or Instagram that represent a potential danger for brands. There’s also been an exodus from editorial sites like Breitbart – the controversial Alt-right news organisation – and copyright-infringing sites such as those streaming live sport without owning the rights. Ads have also been found on pornographic sites.

I don’t suppose brand safety concerns were top of the agenda for most programmatic buyers; performance by way of finding the target audience trumped everything, but one thing’s for sure – it’s now their number one priority.

Good news for traditional publishers? 

Ironically, one of the campaigns which first sparked this controversy was for a publisher. The Guardian pulled ads for its membership scheme from Google’s Adx ad exchange when they were discovered next to extremist content.

Ironic, because it’s traditional publishers which stand to benefit the most from the fallout. News UK’s chief executive, Robert Thompson didn’t hold back with his take on the tech giant:

“It is risible, no, beyond risible, that Google/YouTube, which has earned, literally, hundreds of billions of dollars from other peoples’ content, should now be lamenting that it can’t possibly be held responsible for monitoring that content – monetizing yes, monitoring no.” Press Gazette

1XL, which represents local newspaper publisher’s Johnston Press, Newsquest, Archant and DC Thompson issued a statement suggesting that agencies place ads with them rather than:

“blind programmatic ad buying which is placing household brands next to extremist content and fake news”.

What next for advertisers?

Over the past few weeks I’ve had many calls and emails from media agencies asking us to confirm where their client’s ads are running.

As we operate our own network with direct publisher integration, I can easily list every site down to individual sections and placements – in short, we can offer complete transparency and brand safety. I suspect others in the digital space have probably not had such an easy ride.

What many advertisers don’t realise is quite how many exchanges their ads are passing through before being spat out at the other end. Knowing where your ad is being served when bids and ad calls are being made in a fraction of a second on millions of websites is nigh on impossible.

So perhaps it’s time to take another look at the walled garden traditional publishers can offer, after all, could it be that the environment your ad is served in is as important as the targeting?

Essential for native

Thus far, the programmatic problem has only affected display advertising, but

with some display being tweaked to look more like native, it seems obvious that native advertising should be leading by example. After all, when sites are associated with your content, they should be completely brand safe.

As a final thought, I’ll leave you with three things I’d be asking any native provider:

  1. Can you provide me with a full site list?
  2. Can I blacklist any sites I don’t consider right for the brand?
  3. Can you pause campaigns down to individual placements by next impression?

If they can’t answer all three, I’d be looking elsewhere.