Last week, Theresa May launched a taskforce to combat financial fraud in the UK. She declared that "fraud shames our financial system" and put the cost to the country at £479 million. What do we think when we hear that? It’s a big number? Not before time? Or quite possibly – glad that’s not us?
Except… it is us. Adland is in the grip of fraud every bit as endemic, virulent and damaging as anything that afflicts our financial system – and the cost to advertisers globally is measured in billions, not millions.
The US’s Association of National Advertisers suggests $7.2 billion of global digital adspend is wasted on non-human views each year. I say "suggests" because nobody knows just how widespread the problem really is. We’re working with the ad-fraud specialist Adloox, and it suspects the industry may have underestimated the scale of the crime by as much as 50 per cent.
Why so understated? Because too much of the focus right now is on "viewability" – the percentage of ads appearing in the parts of pages people actually read. It’s important but, if you only worry about viewability, you miss the bigger picture.
Adland is in the grip of fraud every bit as endemic, virulent and damaging as anything afflicting our financial system
Instead, find out how your brand performs on "content fraud" rather than viewability. You’ll be shocked.
Many (most?) respectable brands, with supposedly strong safeguards in place, will find their content grossly, fraudulently misplaced, whether next to pornography or on fake websites filled with gibberish.
This is content fraud – when fraudsters manipulate the exchange, allowing brands to bid for media they would never wish to be associated with.
The Adloox chief executive, Marco Ricci, explains: "Although almost all major brands have some form of fraud policy in place, most aren’t verifying the domain, or the eyeballs, they’re bidding for before they bid – meaning they’re only catching the crime after it happens. And even then, most are failing to track the majority of fraudulent malpractice."
The cost is reputational as well as financial – to paraphrase our home secretary, it’s fraud that shames our brands. Yet digital creativity is key to building the brands of the future. We can’t let these channels be so badly compromised by fraudulent activity. We can’t dismiss it as the cost of doing business online, or leave it to others (the IPA and ISBA are already taking action) to solve. This is everyone’s responsibility.
The & Partnership is working with Adloox, which with M/SIX has helped our client TalkTalk to reduce fraudulent placements to 0.3 per cent. Now we’re joining forces to conduct a study that determines the real extent of the problem and the implications.
This is the most profound challenge facing our industry and we must get a grip on it. Shame on us – and our brands – if we don’t.
Johnny Hornby is the founder of CHI & Partners and The & Partnership