Blog: It’s time to turn on the lights

ACA's VP Digital, Chris Williams, on the questions advertisers must ask themselves about their digital media supply chain.

By: Chris Williams

Back in early 2014, IAB chief Randall Rothenberg, commenting on the digital supply chain, said “the digital advertising industry must stop having unprotected sex.” Perhaps this analogy was too colourful for some, because he rarely used it afterwards. However you feel about the quote, the current prescribed solution for fixing the supply chain is more transparency, or said another way, “let’s turn the lights on.”

In a recent review of a medium-sized plan for a major advertiser bought programmatically, I noted 201,745 unique Chris Williams 2016domains. That’s probably a lot more publisher partners than an advertiser would expect. When the transparency lights go on and the advertiser realizes that what they thought was a selective, intimate arrangement is in fact five football-stadiums full of business partners, they may wish they could hit the dimmer switch. Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s really a bad way to manage a media budget. The real-time media audit uncovered quite a number of problems – from geographic delivery, questionable content and overlapping demand-side platforms within those 200k+ sites.
Once we have turned on the transparency lights, the next step is ensuring proper governance and accountability.

With so many potential partners in the ecosystem, it’s essential that advertisers develop policy guidelines to determine which partners are in and which are out – essentially a whitelist or buying guide. Putting aside whether the buying happens directly or programmatically, this is about who you do business with. That’s the governance. The other part, accountability, is ensuring that when a partner doesn’t live up to the guidelines, they’re put on notice, even potentially dropped.

This is nothing new. Advertisers and their media-buying agencies have been developing buying guides to manage television and other media buying for years. They determine the ratio for prime and fringe-time scheduling, desirable contexts to be in and costing guides. Digital should be no different. Advertisers need to ask the right questions, define their policy and then work with their agency to develop their guidelines. If these are well done, buying guides can reduce invalid traffic, eliminate brand-safety problems and clearly define where rebates might be coming from.

Buying guides must cover who can participate as a supplier, which domains they own, which company underpins how it’s bought and what tech will be applied. A few priority questions for advertisers to answer are:

• Are you willing to buy media that doesn’t allow third-party ad serving?
• What verification tags will you use for a real-time audit?
• Will you buy from publishers that are based outside of Canada?
• Do you believe in owning, storing and accessing data from your buy side?

There are plenty of others. There are no right and wrong answers, just better or worse; it’s a matter of what works for that one advertiser. Like buying equities, it is a matter of risk, return and exposure.

Let’s explore one possibility. As a principle, do you the advertiser believe that your advertising should appear in contexts where the publisher creates or licenses the content? This seems like an easy question to answer yes to, since it eliminates sites dedicated to copyright violations, sites hosting pirated movies or music and sites that are nothing but celebrity cut-and-paste photos organized into endless click-bait lists. That principle in itself would eliminate tens of thousands of domains off the aforementioned media buy with its hundreds of thousands of domains.

Not so fast. What about sites where there is no professional created content, per se? Do you want to be in email, social media feeds, user-generated content, forums or commenting sections? Do you believe that context matters at all? Again, it’s up to the advertiser to provide clear direction in their buying guides. Keep in mind that without proper direction, programmatic can make good or bad digital media buying decisions faster and at greater scale than ever before. Further, the advertiser has powerful rights over the data generated in the buy-side process that are the basis of governance and accountability of their account.

Canadian advertisers can no longer assume that a local media market provides a floor of quality control. The ability for anyone, anywhere to set up a website or launch a startup means that advertiser dollars are on the world market for better or worse. The upside is that advertisers have complete control over the form of their digital media supply chain and who participates in it – when they take the reins to do so.

Like a lighthouse’s beacon, advertiser’s digital principles will guide them in all they do – be it contracts, partner choices, data uses and any other advantages that have yet to be developed.

Chris Williams is VP of digital at the Association of Canadian Advertisers.