Last week, we saw another blow dealt to the complicated world of programmatic advertising. ISBA (the trade body for the UKs biggest advertisers) commissioned PWC to get to the bottom of supply chain transparency in the programmatic ecosystem (see here). The results, on the surface, were pretty damning – suggesting only 12% of ad impressions could be ‘matched’ and that 15% of spend could be lost in the system. The FT looked into this further and had some interesting findings. They state that the true percentage of ads being matched varied wildly from publisher to publisher. In addition, they found that the number of sites that brands appeared on could reach into the hundreds of thousands. This has followed a similar view built by the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office) who have been investigating the real-time bidding marketplace for some time, but have put their investigation on hold whilst we are in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.

The programmatic ecosystem is very complex and relies on several parties and specialist companies to work together to build it. Connecting the wealth of data that we can access and turning it into something impactful for a brand is something beyond the capabilities of advertisers and agencies alone. Jon Mew, of the IAB states, “[Programmatic] is not a dark art and we shouldn’t lose sight of the crucial role programmatic plays in supporting our ad-funded, open web”. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the programmatic marketplace has been a rich playground for fraudsters for whom the rewards have far outweighed the risks. In addition, programmatic has been a dark art where middlemen have taken excessive margins. This is why, from our inception, we have always acted with Transparency at the heart of our buying proposition at Goodstuff.

Fraud rates have reduced significantly as a result of the advances made in content verification technology. Excessive margins have been reduced greatly through a better procurement process, GDPR, and wider use of ads.txt. Killing the wider display market, leaving Google, Facebook and Amazon to comprise an even wider swathe, is to create a sellers’ market that will lead to increasing cost and in fact, less transparency.

The report by ISBA and PWC had two clear recommendations on how brands should react to this discovery. Firstly, they recommend standardisation across a range of contractual and technology areas to facilitate data-sharing and drive transparency. They are also recommending industry collaboration to further investigate “the unknown delta”.

The recommendations are solid – the industry needs better standardisation and needs to work together to give brands the confidence to invest in this sophisticated technology that delivers results for brands if used properly. Whilst the movement of clients’ money needs to be carefully monitored and controlled, the emphasis needs to be on the outcome of results.

There is evidence to suggest that you can reach your audience effectively through a small number of premium sites. However, programmatic delivery has been built on prioritising the data that we have on consumers and the ROI of an individual ad placement over and above the webpage that the ad appears on. For brand activity, the evidence is weighted to the theory that you should select a few premium sites to appear on, as these sites deliver longer dwell time and provide a higher shift in brand metrics. Agencies should only be buying Ads.txt inventory where possible to ensure that you are not being subject to ad fraud. This is why at Goodstuff, we were the first agency to partner with The Ozone Project, which is a collaboration of most of the premium news publications in the UK. Creating bespoke PMP deals for clients is another way of potentially circumnavigating any pitfalls associated with the open exchange.

However, for performance campaigns, the emphasis has to remain on ROI. To only select a small number of sites to run performance campaigns against would be unwise. There is no data to suggest that doing so increases your return on investment. In programmatic, we talk about micro-moments. The milliseconds of time programmatic buyers and technology have to select the right inventory. These micro-moments are crucial to delivering a campaign that generates an outcome. As long as the brand has the correct tracking in place you will be able to effectively measure the ROI of your programmatic activity. The market risks strangling the life out of long-tail sites by suggesting a purely premium buying strategy. Whilst websites should be rewarded for the quality of content that they produce, they should also be rewarded for the quality of audience, and that audiences propensity to transact, particularly when there is a huge amount of data to support this.

The 15% Delta that the report identifies as ‘lost’ needs the focus of the industry’s attention as it is not acceptable to have this budget unaccounted for. The rest of the budget within this ecosystem has its place and provides value – whether this is in line with the cost is another debate – but having a % of spend being ‘lost’ within the transactions between partners cannot be accepted. When working with so many partners within an ecosystem, data is bound to get lost so the opportunity is here to automate processes, streamline the workflow and maintain consistency where possible. This must all be done without sacrificing choice, as the danger of a few partners becoming judge, jury and executioner in this model is real and it will be the brands that will suffer as a result.

Our recommendation on how brands should react and work with their agencies following this report is as follows:

  • Ensure that for all brand campaigns you are measuring the metrics that matter – Dwell time, Brand Surveys etc. are all important tools to ensure quality.
  • For performance campaigns, ensure that your tracking is robust and you are confident in the number of outcomes you are recording on your site. Be clear on what a good ROI looks like for your campaign.
  • In addition to AdLoox verification (Or other quality third-party ad verification software) which is in place as standard on all Goodstuff campaigns, ensure your buying teams are utilising Ads.txt inventory to ensure that you are not subject to fraudulent impressions

The industry is facing unprecedented change in the next few years, particularly in light of Google’s announcement that cookies are soon to be abolished. As we theorised previously (here) this will have a huge impact on how brands will able to effectively track the outcomes users are taking on-site. Now is the time to work together, clear up this mess and rebuild the foundations of the programmatic ecosystem for the benefit of our brands.


Dave Carpenter | Head of Digital

Sarah Treliving | Digital, Data & Technology Director