The Real Story: Digital Advertising Ecosystem Needs Fixing

For any business that has grown from seed-funding up, the day your story hits the Wall Street Journal is a major milestone. We celebrated the WSJ coverage of our growth this week as any company would, but we knew we were only part of a story that is much, much bigger than us. It’s a story of an industry primed for an epic philosophical shift, or outright collapse.

And we’ve only read through the prologue.

Digital advertising is an amazing opportunity to leverage the best technology and data science to connect businesses with customers. It evolves its business model so the medium remains in step with technology, to the benefit of consumers and vendors alike. Need an example? In response to Google’s report that half of their sold display ad inventory is never seen by a human, the industry has responded with premium, 100% viewable advertising to meet new demands from customers misled into thinking fully-viewable equals fully valuable.

Now, our screens are becoming flooded with ads, and our favorite publishers’ user experiences are increasingly destroyed by changes designed to boost Viewable Impressions as a proxy for quality.

The mobile sites we have grown to love appear frozen as we wait for full page ads to clumsily load, only to have us “click to close” and be directed to the advertiser anyway – losing our place…wasting our time…making us think twice about the advertiser that caused this distress.

If I sound like a former UX guy, I am.

In this scramble to address the ‘plague of non-viewability,’ we’ve lost sight of the only key metric that matters: actual business outcomes. Viewability is a broad set of supporting metrics, not an end goal. It’s a set of levers, really; actionable insights to drive ROI, or return on ad spend (ROAS). By measuring viewability, we unlock a tremendous new data set of engagement and conversion attribution that can help companies better connect real human interaction to their sales data. At the same time, we can now smoke out massive inefficiencies in the form of wasted impressions and bot fraud – both symptoms of an ad ecosystem drunkenly rewarded on volume.

It wasn’t long after developing our ad optimization platform that we needed to make some principled decisions about who we were willing to work for. Companies that sell ads cannot objectively report on their own performance—and companies hired by those companies to provide ‘independent’ measurement cannot freely present to buyers full-pipe, unobstructed reporting that uncovers non-working media and non-human traffic. At least, they can’t without wondering at some point why their client (the vendor) has stopped asking them to come back.

Perfect example: Just this week we measured a campaign trafficked through a leading DSP. The DSP had a partnership with an MRC-accredited viewability measurement provider, and those accredited metrics were next to each of the 1,300 domains listed in the DSP’s reports. We measured the same buy, but found it spread across 600,000 different domains. Whether or not the independent measurement provider had the data on the 600,000 sites, we don’t know. If they did, they didn’t share it. Either they lacked the resources to measure and report on these sites (by an unforgiveable margin), or the incentive to report their existence to the client.

We run into these head to head disparities often, often with independent firms hired by agencies and publishers to “check the viewability box.” Middle vendors (agencies, networks, trade desks, publishers) choose measurement providers that make them look the best. Logically the goals of the sell side are not in line with buyers – as the current model rewards volume. When we worked for the middle vendors, the goals of those organizations were counter to those of their clients. They would only show data that supported their case, then optimize towards the metrics they were contractually rewarded for based on their IOs. In most cases, we found those middle metrics had nothing to do with actual value creation.

As tech-obsessed outsiders, we’ve been astounded by the complacency developed around optimizing media. Technology has enabled once unimaginable speed in optimizing ad performance to sales performance, yet the ad industry still relies on post-campaign optimizations and make-goods to deliver value to advertisers. This is inexcusable. We built our technology and data science specialization to optimize for brands mid-stream, during their campaigns. Why?

  • For the movie studio that won’t benefit from these optimizations if they come after their release has left the theaters.
  • For the candidate, whose digital team won’t be around to reallocate budget from wasted impressions to geo-targeted human engagement in battleground states after their opponent has swept them.
  • For the business that needs to optimize during Cyber Monday, not ahead of next Black Friday.

The industry’s challenges in measurement, accountability, and optimization won’t be addressed through technology alone – they require true independence. There will always need to be at least one system ensuring transparency and optimization. That system can’t be directed by the seller and should never be priced on volume, or it will never truly be independent and will fall victim to the same problems the ecosystem faces today.

So, we’re excited to help bring about this necessary change to better align the digital ad ecosystem with the goals of the clients it was designed to support. By providing our brand clients exclusive access to our technology, data science expertise, and business analysis, we can help them better leverage the true efficiencies and responsiveness of digital media buying, knowing they’re reaching real humans where their dollars can be most effective.

To many reading the Wall Street Journal, we probably seem like the latest in a long line of venture-fueled digital disrupters, changing the way we create and reward business. That’s perfect. We join a wave of next-generation companies we love partnering with that put value creation first, and have the evolved approach and technology to create the most direct path to it for brands.

To the marketers, boards of directors, and shareholders of brands eager to disrupt a system that has wasted their money and opportunities for too long, we hope they were reading too.

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