Advertising Still Hasn’t Solved Its (Lack of) Transparency Problem

Advertising Still Hasn’t Solved Its (Lack of) Transparency Problem
In 2017, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at P&G, the largest advertiser in the world, took to the stage at the annual IAB leadership meeting and said P&G would no longer engage with the industry’s “crappy media supply chain.”

The media-buying process is opaque and riddled with fraud, Pritchard said, and P&G demanded agencies, ad tech vendors and publishers subject themselves to third-party measurement and a universal viewability standard. If they failed to comply, P&G would pull its ad spend.

The industry scrambled to develop transparency solutions in the immediate wake of Pritchard’s comments. (People tend to listen when a marketer threatens to pull $7 billion in ad spend.) Among the proposed solutions were ads.txt and sellers.json.

Ads.txt was created in the summer of 2017 by the IAB to help publishers exert more control over their advertising inventory. Short for Authorized Digital Sellers, ads.txt limited a publisher’s inventory to a select list of trusted ad tech vendors.

Sellers.json, released in 2019 by the IAB, was a similar technology aimed at buyers. Using sellers.json, marketers could see the complex web of parties involved in buying, reselling, and eventually publishing their ads.

The technologies are very well-intentioned and well-designed, from a technology point of view — they both attempt to identify all of the intermediaries involved in placing an ad buy, and to map the often circuitous route an ad takes on its way from brand to publisher.

The problem with ads.txt and sellers.json is that they’re too damn complicated. Ads.txt and sellers.json files are meant to include a simple list of all accredited resellers. Instead, these files have become overloaded with extraneous information— a wall of text as complicated and indecipherable as the ad tech marketplace itself.

This complexity is why marketers have not utilized ads.txt and sellers.json to the fullest extent. Because some of the files contain thousands of lines, it has become a challenge to understand, and others reject the idea of working with resellers completely because they fear what they don't understand. The net result is that the transparency initiatives are not transparent enough for the people they are meant to serve. 

Meanwhile, fraudsters learned how to manipulate the system by taking advantage of the lack of understanding and knowledge of the people who operate it. Last year, consulting firm PwC found that just 26% of marketers' programmatic ad spend ends-up as viewable ad impressions. A separate PwC study found that 15% of ad spend vanishes into an “unknown delta.” Only 51% of ad spend actually makes its way to publishers. Of that 51%, about half is wasted on fraud and non-viewable impressions.

The worst part about the lack of transparency is that it prevents marketers from spending more on digital. If brands and agencies had a better idea of where their money was going and were confident their ad spend wasn’t being wasted, ad spend would increase and all parties would benefit.

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The industry needs new tools — ones that enable ads.txt and sellers.json to live up to their full potential of streamlining the transparency process, instead of overwhelming marketers with inscrutable technical solutions. The tools need to be so easy that they are just as useful to the CMO and entry-level agency buyers as they are to data analysts and the engineers building the code.

Transparency means total visibility into every stage of the media supply chain. But transparency also means that everyone is able to understand what’s going on. Until we achieve that, the media supply chain will remain just like it was four years ago: crappy.