Addressing Wasted Billions In The Programmatic Supply Chain

Jun 29, 2023

A landmark report on transparency in the programmatic media supply chain is making waves in the industry. Together with a Newsguard/MIT Technology Review analysis of AI-generated made-for-advertising (MFA) websites, the Association of National Advertisers’s (ANA) findings underscore the need to get real about the dynamics of media ROI.

Somewhere between $13bn-$20bn is estimated to go to worthless or fraudulent sites, including a new generation of content farms designed to eat up programmatic revenue. New advances in “generative AI [offer] a new way to automate the content farm process and spin up more junk sites with less effort,” the article notes, opening up new possibilities for MFA sites and more headaches for advertisers and their agency partners. 

By ANA’s estimate, MFA sites could be diverting as much as 15% of programmatic budgets, accounting for 21% of impressions of the average campaign, which can run across as many as 44,000 sites. 

For advertisers who haven't recently audited their brand safety and suitability toolkit, this is a wake-up call.

The evolving media investment landscape 

The challenge in effectively taking on media waste stems from the rapid pace of developments—for example, new MFA sites pop up constantly—so reducing media waste usually becomes a reactive exercise. Being proactive requires substantial investment of time and resources and must be a constant priority. This can be a challenge for teams already managing multiple critical marketing priorities.

So what can you do to effectively combat advertising waste? Here are five best practices that can make an impact today.

1) Leverage your agency’s expertise

The media, data and technology infrastructure across the programmatic space is highly complex. The report shows a deficit in agency expertise has resulted in an aversion to challenging the media trading status quo. That said, many agencies have created Centers of Excellence to proactively track and manage brand safety across accounts. Ensure that knowledge is being disseminated to your team, and use that knowledge to shore up your internal data and tech expertise.

2) Challenge ROI assumptions  

The cheapest inventory isn’t necessarily the best. In fact, a cost-over-value mindset can expose a brand to more media waste. Making the best of programmatic’s opportunity means instituting monitoring procedures and standards to increase transparency and reduce the risk of fraud. 

Altering the instinct to seek out lower costs requires dialogue and trust with agency partners.

Instituting many of the practices here may lead to higher media costs—but also to less waste, more relevant targeting, and higher long-term returns.

3) Go beyond exclusion lists

Rather than simply adopting exclusion lists—which block sites and apps previously served on sites deemed not brand safe but can’t pick out MFA-designated inventory— we’d suggest flipping the conversation into a more proactive approach. 

Brands should rely on pre-vetted inclusion lists to do the upfront work. These lists must be highly curated, human-vetted and applied to all open auction campaigns. Inclusion lists should be updated annually or even dynamically for optimal performance.

4) Demand oversight 

Working with a third-party verification partner can provide objective, actionable data on fraud and invalid traffic. These vendors can also use pre-bid filters to block bids on fraudulent or invalid sites to proactively avoid wasting money on fraudulent traffic.

Still, it’s important for brands to understand how verification partner's tech works; this can help when evaluating independent partners, understanding where new fraudulent media risks are appearing, how anti-fraud technology is improving, and how to mitigate risk of media waste as soon as possible. While not perfect, this approach—in tandem with using ads.txt or sellers.json—provides another data-backed perspective for brands and advertisers to make decisions about media costs.

5) Seek transparency

In the old days of pre-digital media, conversation would frame a relationship. Agency partners should be engaging more deeply with media’s supply side; demand-side teams might be surprised to find that SSPs are often open to a conversational approach to testing and learning the best approach for a brand. 

Working with SSPs directly can help teams understand their capabilities, operations, what inventory they are accessing on a publisher's given page and their willingness to find cost efficiencies.  

It’s vital that brands score their agencies on knowledge, willingness to facilitate this process transparently, preparedness to share data regularly and readiness to discuss media waste. Agencies should be eager to offer strategies that protect brands from fraud, including AI-fueled MFA sites now proliferating across the internet, and maximize the return on their media investment. 

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