This may come as a shock, but you can’t sell what you don’t have and get away with it. Three former Outcome Health executives learned this the hard way and now face years in prison for selling advertising inventory they didn’t have.
The advertisers, mostly pharmaceutical companies who thought they had purchased digital advertising space on tablets and screens that Outcome Health had placed in physicians’ offices, were out more than $45 million. The executives, who sold space on more screens than were available and manipulated metrics to make it seem like patients were engaging with the non-existent ads, face years in prison.
This case is somewhat unique in that the advertisers were buying directly from the provider, but the problem of unauthorized digital ad inventory is not unusual in the open programmatic marketplace. A 2017 study revealed “massive volumes” of counterfeit digital ad inventory, which remains a threat to both buyers and sellers to this day, despite increased awareness and IAB-initiated measures to help combat the issue.
At one time, advertisers bought ad space directly from the publisher or other channels. It was easy for brands to see their print ads in newspapers and magazines or plastered on billboards. Then came the internet and digital advertising, promising to better deliver brand messages to targeted audiences.
Online ads offered lower placement costs, wider distribution to a more targeted audience, trackable results, and the ability to change messages quickly. It sounds almost too good to be true, so what could possibly go wrong?
It's a Buyers’ and a Sellers’ Market
To get the right message to the right audience at the right time on the right channel, brands or their advertising agencies rely on open programmatic platforms that match advertisers with publishers, place the ads, and pay the publishers; in turn, the platforms send back ad details to confirm placement.
That sounds simple enough, but there are a lot of buyers and sellers involved, and of course, where there is money to be made, there is the opportunity for unscrupulous actors to intervene and get their not-fair share. One problem is “made for advertising” (MFA) websites that may have high viewability along with a high number of ads and low-quality content, including disinformation.
This is a practice sometimes referred to as ad arbitrage. While there is only a slight chance your target audience will even see your ads on these sites, if they are seen, it could negatively impact your brand’s reputation. In addition, buyers may not be aware their ads are running on these sites due to domain spoofing.
Is That a Typo, or Are You Happy to Spoof Me?
Fraudsters may use a fake URL that is just one digit, letter, or domain away from a desirable website. For example, if you’re not careful, you may inadvertently purchase ad space on wapol.com instead of wapo.com. The spoofed URL may redirect to an MFA site, wasting your ad dollars and risking your reputation, while the fraudster will probably take your money and continue to run this scheme because the chances of getting caught are slim.
Publishers, You Have a Programmatic Problem Too
Just as brands and advertisers depend on the convenience of programmatic platforms, publishers see benefits from participating in the open programmatic marketplace. They have ad space to fill and revenue to generate, and open programmatic platforms offer an easy and cost-effective way to do that. Ad spend on open programmatic markets was down slightly last year, but it still accounted for six out of every $10, and most publishers don’t have a way to make up that revenue if they pull out of the open programmatic markets.
Obviously, buyers and sellers have issues with the open programmatic market, but both have become dependent on the platforms. It’s a hard habit to break, but some steps can help protect the interests of advertisers and legitimate publishers.
Tips for Brands and Advertisers:
When possible, advertisers can consider using a programmatic direct approach to ensure their ads are placed on specific websites. This approach may be less targeted, but it does help avoid questionable sites and ensures ads are placed with reputable publishers that likely draw your desired audience.
Advertisers should actively monitor their online advertising campaigns. Check sites where ads are supposed to run; make sure the site is valid and that your ads are in rotation.
Leverage a third-party ad fraud detection and prevention solution to stop invalid traffic from MFA or other low-quality sites. As an objective partner, an ad fraud detection provider may see things you might miss and even identify where valid traffic is coming from so you can redirect your spend to those channels.
Tips for Publishers:
Publishers can implement Authorized Digital Sellers (ads.txt) and ads-app.txt, initiatives from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), that denote partners authorized to sell digital ad space on the publisher’s behalf. While not foolproof, ads.txt and ads-app.txt help to build trust and improve ad quality and results.
Go direct. Some publishers, including big names like Bloomberg, are getting off the open programmatic roller coaster for the direct (or private) programmatic or “programmatic guaranteed” approaches. These approaches allow publishers to differentiate themselves while giving buyers more say in the type of content their ads run alongside, number of impressions, and more. These are not options for every publisher; it requires a devoted sales force as well as a solid understanding of their audience and how they consume content.
Publishers and programmatic platforms can ease buyer concerns by utilizing a trusted fraud detection partner who is MRC or TAG certified. While a third-party solution can’t detect unauthorized ad inventory, it can help spot patterns that may indicate inventory issues that need to be addressed.
Anura works with brands, agencies, publishers, and open programmatic platforms to reduce ad fraud and wasted ad spend, protect reputations, and build trust. Ask for a free trial to see what we can do for you.