A view from Maisie McCabe

Ad fraud rears its head again, but should we care?

Another week, another set of headlines on bots.

Last Thursday, we were treated to a report from the ad fraud detection specialist Forensiq. With presumably no thought to the wide array of protection services it sells to brands, Forensiq generously carried out some research into ad fraud in mobile apps. 

As we’ve come to expect from these types of studies, the results were pretty awful. Dodgy apps were found to not only be loading more ads than you would expect (20-a-minute compared with the average refresh every 30 to 90 seconds) but also launching on start-up and running sneakily in the background. Forensiq believes mobile ad fraud will cost advertisers a combined $1 billion this year.

Presumably, Forensiq’s sales team are ready and waiting to talk to you about how you can limit all of this stuff using their no-doubt-brilliant products. But do you actually need to? I have Dave Trott to thank for directing me to comments from Rick Webb, the ex-chief operating officer at the digital agency The Barbarian Group, on this very issue. 

In a blog posted earlier this month, Webb proclaimed that "banner ‘fraud’ doesn’t matter". He says that, even though there are some 400 better digital formats, brand marketers are still buying banners because they are "cheap and they work". In an environment where we are told that conglomerates are so worried about fraud that they are calling expensive media reviews, it’s an interesting counter-view.

Webb’s argument is that everyone knows the ecosystem is rotten but that it’s priced in so it doesn’t matter. If it’s all sorted out and cleaned up, prices will go up accordingly. So brands will end up spending the same amount to reach the same people. If the web is partially fixed so that publishers offer a premium line in good banners, holes will be found again and so the brands will lose out.

It seems that Google at least is taking the research seriously as it has suspended a number of apps as a result of the findings. I can’t imagine many media strategists are despairing that they cannot include apps such as Celebrity Baby and Vampire Doctor in their plans, but all these little banners add up to a lot of money. The Advertising Association this week predicted that mobile adspend would climb 43.4 per cent to £2.3 billion in 2015.

Even if Webb is right that ad fraud doesn’t matter, I can’t envisage many in the industry publicly agreeing with him. It would take a brave marketing director to tell their chief financial officer that they were spending money on bots but didn’t care. But if there are solid reasons for using digital advertising despite the risk, we should hear that voice. 

Only by bringing everyone into the debate will we arrive at a solution that is genuinely better than what we have right now.