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.

Malvertising: Is this the beginning of the end?

TAG Malware Scanning Guidelines

Decoding TAG malware scanning guidelines for tactical use 

Note: View webinar at 

The advertising industry’s crackdown on malvertising has begun. TAG’s recently-released malware scanning guidelines clearly state that every player in the digital advertising ecosystem has a role in deterring, detecting and removing malware.

However, these guidelines need to be translated into action plans. As with many cross-industry initiatives, the TAG guidelines serve several different groups across the digital ecosystem while also introducing security concepts to advertising/marketing professionals. The use of words such as: interdict, cloaking, checksum, and eval(), may baffle many ad ops professionals just like defining “creative” as a payload may baffle security teams.

The good news is that The Media Trust’s existing malware clients are already 100% compliant with the guidelines. Other ad ops teams at agencies, ad tech providers, and publishers, will need to translate the best practices into tactical actions in order to bring their operations into compliance.

What is clear: Scanning is in your future

Every entity that touches or contributes code to the serving of an ad plays a role in malware deterrence – this much is clear. Agencies, ad tech providers and publishers alike are, therefore, expected to proactively and repeatedly review their ads for malware.

Specifically, the guidelines state that:

  1.    Ads and their associated landing pages must be scanned for malware
  2.    Scanning should be performed before an ad is viewed by the end consumer
  3.    If initial scanning detects malware, then the ad must be rescanned until malware-free

Read between the lines: Reap what you sow

The complexities of the digital ecosystem make it almost impossible to explicitly state what each player in the advertising ecosystem should do. Typically, the amount of scanning required is directly proportional to the risk of serving a malware-infected ad or directing to a malware-infected landing page. While there are some directional tips, the guidelines also present a few abstract recommendations:

  • Scanning frequency

Ad formats, demand types, consumer reach and access to an ad as it traverses from advertiser to publisher, affect the frequency of recommended scanning.

For instance, a publisher with a campaign using hosted, static ads, targeting a small number of impressions does not have as robust a scanning requirement as a publisher running campaigns with rich media served programmatically. And, an ad contaminated by malware needs to be scanned more frequently than one that doesn’t set off alarm bells during the initial scan. And, an ad that changes mid-flight—modifying targeting, increasing number of impressions, introducing rich media—requires additional scanning.

  • Proof of scanning

Claiming an ad is scanned is not sufficient. As a best practice, all parties should document proof of scanning and this proof should contain creative id, tag specifications, date of initial and subsequent scans and scanning results. In addition, each party in the advertising value chain should establish a point of contact for reporting malware and communicate it to their upstream and downstream partners. 

  • Know your partner

A critical factor that informs rescanning cadence is the provider’s confidence in their upstream partner(s). Long-standing relationships with reputable, responsive partner(s) infers a reduced likelihood of malicious activity, as opposed to a newly-formed partnership with a one-man shop based in a foreign country. And, the provider should also track and document if their partner adheres to the scanning guidelines, too.

Look ahead: This is just the beginning

The guidelines clearly set the stage for optimizing ad quality and its resulting effect on the user experience, with an emphasis on security. A 100% malware-free advertising experience can’t be guaranteed, but everyone agrees it can be greatly improved. Future steps will undoubtedly address data privacy, ad behavior and more.

While these guidelines provide the impetus to tackle malvertising, it’s a safe bet that industry leaders will push to make them standard a la TAG Certified Against Fraud and Certified Against Piracy programs. And, in order to standardize, a certification and evaluation or audit process will be needed.  

Stay tuned.

Learn more
The Media Trust hosted three informative webinars presenting specific direction to publishers, ad tech providers and agency/buyers. To view, visit