How do we tackle digital advertising issues? Clarity, consensus and investment

MediaCom's head of digital says technology is not the whole answer and smart digital media planners are still crucial to effective online advertising.

Sarah Treliving: a joint head of digital and managing partner at MediaCom
Sarah Treliving: a joint head of digital and managing partner at MediaCom

There’s been a lot of criticism about the direction and accountability of the digital advertising industry of late, so it comes as no surprise to me that the IAB has announced that it will release a series of statements to address the key issues.

The first problem is that digital technologies can be faddy. Once they’re not new, they’re quickly forgotten and would be start-ups turn their attention to the hottest topic at the foot of its growth curve.

Usually this doesn’t happen before the internet (or advertising) giants gobble the best of them up and add them to their stacks.

The challenge with content verification technologies is that they are deeply technical. It is very difficult to keep pace with fraudsters, with huge fiscal opportunity as an incentive to stay ahead.

Many of the best verification tools have been acquired by larger technologies, which is good as they now have the backing of a much larger development resource and the investment to move forward faster.

However, the industry must keep shining a spotlight on this issue as big tech firms need to continue to invest and there has to be an incentive for start-ups to keep looking at content verification technology as an opportunity in order to break the next barrier of innovation in this space.

As with most things, technology is not the whole answer. We still need smart digital media planners to review every advertising placement and make an informed decision.

It’s crucial to have someone who understands what’s driving the end result; whether that’s location on the page, poor page download time or non-human traffic.

We have seen advertisers pull out of display as a media channel entirely owing to a misrepresentation of the results, only to set it live months later as removing the halo effect that display provided for other media eroded the overall sales.

Any level of identifiably suspicious traffic can now be removed before we bid on the impression, however the most successful media plans still select the most effective placements well ahead of making a bid.

At MediaCom, we have therefore created a digital ‘opportunity to see’ guide to inform us in our choices. The only placements we remove from plans are those that are ‘never viewed’.

Placements partially viewed, but on-target for cost-per-acquisition remain on the plan. Spiders and robots cannot buy product so we know the sales are genuine.

Client-specific white-lists are then built that marry content verification with sales performance. These create a guide for good quality inventory.

All partners on the plan are monitored over a month to understand what had run before, and subsequently given a specified target percentage to improve by.

In the first quarter of taking this approach with a large entertainment company, we saw a 26 per cent improvement in viewability of media. Obviously this improvement won’t continue at such a pace, but by being clear about the approach and with careful monitoring, we can set expectations at the outset.

Aside from technology and application, there is still an industry-wide education job to be done in the understanding of viewability. It is the catch-all term for ads placed and not viewed by humans, and sometimes viewed by humans but not wholly seen. It’s confusing.

There are also many different causes for a lack of viewability, each needing a different action to resolve the problem. Fraud itself has thousands of causes ranging from tool bars that force incentivised clicks, to thousands of pages loaded invisibly and filled with ads.

Viewability also gets confused with Brand Safety where the content of the website onto which the ad is served is of distasteful or unlawful content.

Pre-bid refusal of suspicious impressions is a recent and welcome development but only applies to detectable fraud and brand safety. The removal of all non-viewed ads can only be done via non-payment for the ads or delivery over a forward period of time, both of which are operationally inefficient.

I believe that more direct relationships with publishers will eradicate much, but not all, of this. Exchange inventory offers the ability to flex price and volume and apply targeting, so we need an effective technological solution and fast.

That said, the reach of other media such as print and out-of-home is measured via an opportunity to see derived from panels. But we know the ad was legitimately delivered and in a placement that was designed to attract a specific consumer’s attention (rather than an outdoor site in the woods say).

Digital should be evaluated in the same way. We need to make sure that ads are delivered, to humans, in placements that are not at the bottom of a 20ft-long page.

Taking display out of the mix as a result of evaluating it against misguided principles harms the overall plan if the money is then spent in media that is not able to be identified as less effective as it is less measurable than digital.

As with most things, clarity, consensus and investment are our best chance of getting to a near perfect solution as soon as possible.

Sarah Treliving is a joint head of digital and managing partner at MediaCom