Agencies and the Ad Quality Quandary

Authored by Chris Olson, CEO and Co-Founder, The Media Trust.

Increasing advertiser demands turn the wheels of change for agencies.

Media buyers and ad quality

There’s no denying that two major phenomena are actively reshaping the existing digital advertising supply chain:

  1. Accountability is being pushed upstream

Not long ago, digital publishers bore the brunt of the blame, shame and liability (financial and legal) for ad-related problems such as performance issues, unauthorized collection of audience data, and security concerns (malvertising). Today, armed with more public awareness (in the form of ad blocking, among others), industry best practices (e.g., TAG, IAB LEAN) and regulations (GDPR anyone?), publishers are finally pushing back on upstream partners when policy-flouting ads are served to their digital environments. And, many partners are listening. Now, several other ad tech players on the buy side of the digital supply chain are joining this publisher revolt and to direct accountability for creative issues to their upstream partners.

  1. Advertisers have spoken

Earlier this month, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, P&G’s chief brand officer, Marc Pritchard didn’t mince words when it came to expressing his irritation with everyone’s acceptance of serious flaws with the digital advertising supply chain. While he highlighted the complexities of digital advertising and confusing agency contracts, what stood out were his comments on the quality of the digital ad experience for consumers:

“Sometimes we deliver a high-quality media experience, but all too often the experience is, well, crappy. We bombard consumers with thousands of ads a day, subject them to endless ad load times, interrupt them with pop-ups and overpopulate their screens and feeds…”

This comment from the world’s biggest advertiser underscores the importance of digital ad quality in regards to what is being “presented” to audiences today and rightfully so. According to recent research, the consumer packed goods (CPG) industry spends almost 20% of their $225 billion annual marketing budget on digital advertising, yet retailers and shoppers alike gave digital advertising low marks for effectiveness. This provides further impetus for more advertisers to focus on improving the digital ad experience, thus putting the sell-side is under immense pressure to not just launch high-quality ads into the digital supply chain but to prove that those are high-quality ads.

New priorities, New challenges

As the digital ad ecosystem evolves, agencies and media buyers need to re-establish trust with both consumers and advertisers. The first step is adopting industry best practices and standards for ad quality and security. This includes being judicious about audience data collection activity and keeping abreast of the ever-evolving guidelines for a plethora of ad formats.

Agencies have a lot of work to do. As depicted in the image 1, most media buyers today need to take a more farsighted approach to campaign development and scanning. The assumption that an ad, upon entrance into the digital ecosystem, is exactly the same when it renders on a website showcases this ignorance. To meet changing advertiser demands for a better digital ad experience, agencies need to look at:

Creative vs. Total Ad Experience Characteristics

Image 1

Simply put: agencies need to adopt a more comprehensive view of the entire ad experience – creative + ad (the actual creative with all the corresponding analytics code) + landing page, not just the creative. 

A paradigm shift in agency priorities is required. Agencies and media buyers are under unprecedented scrutiny to address ad quality as they are where creatives originate. Their inability to meet the changing demands of both advertisers and publishers directly impact the following areas:  

  • Ability to Launch and Serve Ads

As ad formats and standards continue to evolve, meeting these specs across publishers, platforms, and networks impact your ability to serve ads

  • Ad Spend and Campaigns

Delays in launching campaigns jeopardize ad spend and campaign metrics. Also, the inability to verify the campaign and its success – is the ad getting served the way it should be and to the target audience – could damage relationships with advertisers

  • Brand Image

Noncompliance with complex and changing regulations damage brand image and lead to penalties potentially for the advertiser, publisher and the agency itself

Pressure changes the status quo

While the brief to media buyers about what to do and what is expected is clear, it will be interesting to see how agencies actually adapt to the changing digital advertising landscape. Balancing advertiser demands while trying to achieve operational efficiencies and scale and trying to win a turf war against big consulting firms can prove to be a heavy lift for agencies. These bi-directional pressures coming from advertisers on one end and published on the other end of the digital ad supply chain will force revolutionary change. If done right, the end result is a transformed digital advertising ecosystem: positive UX via an optimized and profitably monetized channel.

To mock or not to mock?

Avoiding fraudulent advertising campaign verification is critical for publishers


That is the question frequently asked by media publishers trying to meet advertiser demands related to digital campaign success. The industry’s intense focus on viewability and transparency issues associated with ad fraud hijacks the limelight from another vital area of interest for advertisers: Are campaigns actually running as contracted?

What the advertiser wants, the advertiser gets

To justify the millions (and millions!) of dollars spent promoting products, advertisers rightfully demand proof that their campaigns execute as promised.

From expected ad rendering on the page to accurate targeting by geography and behavior profiles, advertisers want to know that the right ad has been served in the right way in the right location on the right page to the right demographic. In fact, when considering the average spend of a large-scale national campaign flight, many advertisers will assert they deserve to know their campaign is performing as promised.

Authenticated ad inventory yields benefits

The advertising ecosystem is a dynamic environment processing millions of ads covering billions in spend at any one time. Considering that 5% of display and mobile ads are served incorrectly at launch and countless more break during flight, publishers need to actively monitor and protect their ad-generated revenue channels.[i]

Authenticated ad inventory helps publishers secure ad revenue by avoiding pre-planned delivery overages to compensate for anticipated discrepancies. In addition, it also reduces the frequency of misfiring campaigns, thus minimizing instances of “make good” campaigns.

Ad verification is more than good looks

Reputable publishers recognize the value of their high-quality inventory and demonstrate it by providing proof of ad delivery according to established terms. This is a complicated prospect in an age of large-scale campaigns incorporating ads of varying formats (i.e., HTML5, pre/mid/post-roll video, native, etc.) through multiple platforms (i.e., display, tablet, smartphone, gaming consoles, etc.) across increasingly granular targeting segments.

A Photoshopped “mock-up” or full-page capture of the ad on a screen is a start, but it isn’t enough. Presenting a “mock-up” of how an ad should look could be considered fraudulent as it’s not a true representation of how an ad performs across all formats, devices and geographies. In fact, several industries (Tier 2 automotive, pharmaceutical, etc.) and countries (especially those in Latin America) regulate advertising-based billing processes and require third-party verified screenshots upon invoice presentation.

Beyond the visual of “how” an ad looks on a device, publishers must prove that each ad is delivered as contracted with the advertiser. Continuous monitoring of campaigns at launch and throughout flight will quickly detect errors associated with targeting, creative and device-specific issues that impede optimal campaign execution.

Authentication of possibly hundreds of ad combinations—by size, format, device and geography—is used by publishers to substantiate inventory value and by advertisers to audit and measure campaign ROI.

Consider this

To verify accurate ad placement, execution and targeting, a publisher must consider these five factors:

1.    Legitimacy: Screenshots of ads in a live environment truthfully demonstrate that an ad is delivered to the right target. A “mock-up” or “test page” may display how an ad appears on a site, but in reality it provides a false sense of security for how the ad is actually executing. It also infers that the ad will render the same across all devices, OS, formats and geographies.

2.    Accuracy: Mock-ups can’t prove ad placement as many ad units only occur behind paywalls or require an IP address in order to serve the correct messaging to the individual user.

3.    Automation: Imagine scaling the manual process of verifying ads across the overwhelming number of devices, browsers, user profiles, formats, sizes and geo-locations. Without automation, the task is almost impossible. Leverage technology to streamline the process.

4.    Costs: Carefully consider the total cost of ownership when deciding between an in-house or outsourced process. While in-house resources are easier to control, it is difficult to secure funding and keep the staff engaged. On the flip side, outsourcing requires integration, training, probable coordination with targeting vendors, and continuous oversight which could ultimately be more costly than anticipated—not to mention the complications of managing a remote team, in a case of choosing a non-local entity if a non-native entity is selected.

5.    Quality Assurance: Reliance on mock-up designs to certify campaign execution will not catch errors that occur at launch or throughout the campaign flight.

Ad verification is a complex, yet critical endeavor for publishers looking to highlight inventory value. Don’t mock it.


[i] The Media Trust analysis of millions of ad campaigns verified over the course of 10 years.