TL;DR — For years, I gave the industry associations – ANA and IAB – the benefit of the doubt (that they really didn’t know about the massive fraud eating up their members’ budgets); but their deliberate actions, repeated annually, mean they can no longer claim “they didn’t know.” They DID know. But they chose to cover up the massive fraud by distracting their congregations with industry-wide initiatives and silencing people who would speak up (kinda sounds like the mob, don’t you think?). Viewability initiatives and working groups captured everyone’s attention for years, keeping them distracted from solving the real problem of ad fraud (a “viewable” ad that was shown to a bot is still useless); ad fraud (IVT – invalid traffic) was downplayed in reports published annually since 2014; and now brand safety initiatives will keep the sheep distracted for years longer. Having observed the actions of the trade associations from afar, for years, I can only conclude utter incompetence, willful ignorance, or some other hidden agenda, which most certainly is not to help their members do better digital marketing.
The Long F**king Version; or The F**king Long Version
Industry trade associations – ANA (Association of National Advertisers) and IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) – have every reason to protect the golden goose that has been driving the following chart (digital ad spend) up and to the right for 20 years, not to mention the annual boondoggle confabs and Cannes yachts that everyone loves to sip champagne on.
But it’s been harder and harder to justify this continued growth since humans’ usage of the Internet, social media, and mobile devices have all plateaued, flat especially in the last 5 years, but digital ad spend and number of impressions continues upward. The widening gap (in shaded red) is created by fraudulent activity – bots, fake sites, fake traffic, fake mobile apps, fake influencers, fake followers, fake video views, fake clicks, etc.
“The red numbers in the lower right are what the ANA and TAG say ad fraud is — it’s so low, don’t worry, keep spending.”
So, BELIEVING that digital marketing works is different than digital marketing ACTUALLY working. Let me be more specific — big brands spend millions of dollars buying TRILLIONS of ad impressions every year; but they are still just doing “spray and pray” marketing, even though the marketers __believe__ they are doing awesome hyper targeting. This disconnect comes from the fact that they don’t realize the gigantic audiences that match a dozen targeting parameters at once are bots pretending to be everything they WANTED to target, instead of humans — i.e. fraud. In fact, there’s probably exactly 0.03 humans (a fraction of a human) on earth that could match ALL of the parameters at the same time.
So you see, the industry trade association’s job is to keep everyone believing so they keep spending. When they keep spending, they keep paying dues; and round and round it goes. Also be sure to note the cushy annual salaries of their CEOs that they have every incentive to protect too , . This also reminds me of those cult-like mega churches that sell a particular kind of religion rooted in the congregation continuing to give money so the pastor can keep buying rare autographed sneakers for himself and fancy cars for his family.
What are specific examples of industry-wide initiatives that kept everyone distracted, doing busywork on committees, and most importantly continuously spending? Let’s look at a few, and how they played out.
When programmatic advertising took off in 2013, the trade associations and agencies latched onto a concept – viewability – that would successfully keep the congregation distracted for the next 5 years. It was a simple premise, that even seemed to make sense on the surface. Was your ad “viewable?” Did the ad have an opportunity to be seen; if not, it wouldn’t have the intended effect; of course that makes sense. Working groups were formed; countless hours were spent in meetings that finally led to industry-wide agreement on something that was, and is, entirely arbitrary — 50% of the pixels of a display ad had to be in view for 1 second to be considered “viewable” (why not 60%, or 0.5 seconds, etc.) With this standard in-hand, big agency holding companies made bold proclamations that they were the ultimate protector of their clients’ ad dollars by “only buying 100% viewable impressions.” Sounds cool, right?
What they didn’t realize is that the viewability measurements that they depended on could be easily altered or outright faked – to mark ads as “viewable” when they actually were not. This means the fraudsters always had 100% viewable ads to sell, magically. A normal site’s viewability is always less than 100%, simply due to webpage layout. For example, if there are 3 ads on the page, and 2 are above-the-fold, and 1 is below-the-fold, the sitewide average viewability is 66%.
The least advanced fraudsters would simply stack all the ad iframes “above the fold” and the more advanced ones would just use javacript code to alter the measurement or pass faked info (viewable = “yes”). Even a mainstream publisher, Newsweek, was caught doing just this (countless others continue doing so); this shows you just how mainstream this fraudulent practice was, and still is.
So while the entire herd of sheep remained focused on this viewability issue for years, “doing time” on committees and presenting at conferences about making their digital ads better, they were actually exposing themselves to more fraud than ever. As they shifted more ad dollars to programmatic channels (we are up to 85% in programmatic now) to chase higher viewability, they ended up buying more fake ads. This is because the higher viewability on long tail sites was faked too. If they were going to set up fake websites, and buy fake traffic, they also had to fake the viewability to ensure all their inventory was sellable. And oh by the way, their inventory was even cheaper!
As recently as this week, – that’s right April 2020 – John Montgomery, the head of “the world’s largest media buying agency’s” brand safety group said on an IAB webinar “we’re measuring everything; we’re looking at the data every day (they’re not); and by doing so we’re ensuring that everything we buy is viewable, brand safe, and zero fraud.” And the CEO of a verification company (interview below) cited their own quarterly media quality report that showed average viewability went up worldwide, particularly on programmatic exchanges (fake long-tail sites are really good at faking viewability).
Apparently, these televangelists are both still not aware that those measurements – viewability, brand safety, and IVT – are easily manipulated or simply incorrect. They BELIEVE they are doing a lot; and they ARE doing a lot – tons of meetings, tons of webcasts, and tons of conferences (before the virus hit). But that doesn’t mean the ads are actually viewable, shown to humans, or actually driving business outcomes, even if the (incorrect) measurements show they are all three.