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With Isba’s study revealing that 15% of digital ad spend is unaccounted for, a statistic from the PwC-produced report that prompted headlines, Damon Reeve, chief executive of The Ozone Project, offers his first-hand insight into what this means for the programmatic sector.

The results from Isba’s Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study, carried out by PwC and in association with the AOP, have practically self-penned the industry’s headlines for the past few days.

“Missing billions”, “big holes”, “the unknown delta”, “mind-boggling” – perhaps not the usual words used to describe a positive first step, yet that’s exactly what this report represents. If, as an industry, we want to create a more sustainable, future-proofed environment for digital advertising we must first acknowledge that things aren’t working as they are. These results certainly speak to what many people already know, and reinforces the need for change.

As we look to create a blueprint for that change, it is a great step forward that it has been driven by advertisers and publishers – as the principal architects – alongside their respective trade bodies. Reversing the trend of disintermediation by programmatic tech vendors, and working together to find their voice, albeit of frustration, is one of the best outcomes of this study, and why it must be a first step and not an end in itself.

In the interests of disclosure, The Ozone Project is an advertiser-led business created by publishers and was developed to tackle many of the issues highlighted in this report. We see ourselves as a significant catalyst for the shift towards a more grown-up advertising environment, one less willing to accept the past shortcomings of programmatic.

The answer is not just what to do next, it’s how we do it

As we entered the 2020s I was convinced we would see an adult programmatic self emerge; still with lots of growth and development ahead, but also less wild and irresponsible than the younger child of the 2010s. Given some of the research in this report was produced in Q1 2020, it’s clear there is still much to do before a more mature self emerges. Nine weeks of Covid-19 isolation has given much time to reflect, and it seems how we go about change will be as important as what we change.

Firstly, collaboration must be front and centre. Through their trade bodies, advertisers and publishers have highlighted some of programmatic’s most persistent problems. An astonishing insight from the report is the confusion over whether advertisers and publishers have the right to access the log data for campaigns they are running. The answer to that question should not require consulting a legal department.

The programmatic supply chain should genuinely work in the best interests of publishers and brands. Together they must build on this work to address one of the critical recommendations from the report; standardising terms and conditions for buyers and sellers, while creating consistent data taxonomies and data sharing rules. This first step will help close the somewhat unhelpful gap that has developed between advertisers and publishers within programmatic advertising.

Secondly, while transparency is at the heart of this study, it isn’t something to fix, it is a way to behave. The ‘opacity by design’ approach that has challenged the sector for years represents institutionalised behaviour that will require a concerted effort to correct. Being open, authentic and human in terms and conditions will be deemed important qualities, rather than hiding the ‘unknown delta’ in technical terms and jargon that almost no one understands. Patience has been worn paper-thin amongst advertisers and publishers, and in this new future we will see vendors and partners selected on operating principles as much as technical capabilities.

A starting point for what to do next

The insights and recommendations from the report itself provide a framework for where future focus must be directed.

As already mentioned, standardising terms and conditions through Isba and the AOP is an obvious next step to remove much of the friction and confusion that exists today. It took PwC more than nine months to receive the information for its analysis, with an often ‘round the houses’, confused approach to who could give permission to use the data.

Brand safety has been high on the marketer agenda during these challenging times with a specific focus from Newsworks’ #BackdontBlock campaign. This new analysis should enable further grown-up conversations around brand safety generally, particularly as the study’s advertisers appeared on an average of 40,524 different domains. That’s not a misprint. 40,524 different websites. How many websites do you visit on a regular basis? Even looking beyond the first page of the Comscore top 3,000 yields some very random websites. Only 19% of campaign impressions were delivered on premium publisher domains, with the vast majority appearing on other websites and the unregulated long-tail of the internet. Responsible advertisers will no doubt be asking questions about where their advertising is going, and what exactly it is funding.

Next, the ‘unknown delta’ needs to become known. In an automated world, one would expect any margin for error to be reduced, and therefore any major gap is concerning. While many have offered thoughts as to why – from currency fluctuations to the compound impact of rounding through the supply chain – it’s important to remember that this 15% ‘unknown delta’ appears in the very small proportion of data that could be matched for the purposes of the study. If this reflects the ‘best of the best’ – major advertisers working with the most premium publishers – the 15% delta will be significantly bigger with smaller sites and smaller advertisers that weren’t measurable.

A final point not specifically called out in this report but to me is inferred in every insight and recommendation, is aligning incentives for each participant in the supply chain to the value they provide. And this extends to the agreements brands have with their media agencies. It will be very difficult to move to a trusted grown-up programmatic ecosystem if each actor is trying to game the system, whether through opportunity or necessity. Remove the incentive for opacity and we build an advertising environment that we all want. It’s on advertisers and publishers to build on this study and remove these incentives.

“The market is damn near impenetrable.”

In last week’s Financial Times, the frustration of Phil Smith, Isba’s director-general, regarding the programmatic world couldn’t have been more obvious. Yet with some time to reflect and digest, what is becoming increasingly clear is that this first-of-its-kind collaborative study has already laid great foundations for building a better future for digital advertising.

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Sourced from The Drum