As UK advertisers continue to increase their investment in digital media, they have recognised a need to ensure the media they purchase actually gets in front of consumers. Online advertising offers scale and reach, but those benefits also make it impossible for any one marketer to manually monitor where every single ad appears. But whereas the ad server was once the source of truth, new demands have emerged to ensure that ads reach living humans (not bots) and are actually viewable on the page, leading to the rise of stand-alone verification providers.
The marketing language for these solutions is fairly clear: no verification figures are to be trusted unless they come from an independent party. That certainly sounds right – an outside party can limit any suspicion around the accuracy of the final figures. But the truth is a little more nuanced. The important distinction here isn’t to separate verification from the entire ad serving process, but to separate it from the media sale. In other words, third-party verification has a place, but it isn’t an advertiser’s only option.
This is largely because accurate measurement continues to get standardised across the industry. Impression counting standards came first, followed by viewability. Along the way, criteria for mobile and video were clearly defined as well.
Most recently, the industry has placed demands on all parties to put effort toward detecting and reporting on the most basic of fraud detection. Leading the way in the US is the MRC, which rolled out its General Invalid Traffic (GIVT) standard in 2015, and any accredited technology must now be GIVT compliant and in line with industry-wide policies to detect and filter out traffic known to be fraudulent. This means any MRC-accredited technology must incorporate some form of fraud detection, regardless of whether that technology’s core purpose is serving display ads or providing a sophisticated viewability and fraud measurement.
As a result, ad servers can actually provide most, if not all, of the verification needs of an advertiser. The journey is quite similar to creative, which started out as unique, then became standardised, and is now commoditised. Closer to home, JICWEBS – the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards in the UK and Ireland – has developed a certification programme to audit businesses, and check whether their processes reduce the risk of fraudulent ads being served.
As basic verification becomes more commoditised, it means that specialist companies are not the only solution. Independent verification companies now define a unique version of “the truth” and market themselves as the sole purveyors of that truth.
But again, the questions that brands and agencies need to be asking are “independent from what?” and “at what cost?” Extra insights and an added premium may not make that much of a difference over what is already commoditised, especially when buyers factor in operational costs and vendor management. Buyers need to consider the following when deciding the solution provider that’s best for them:
- While no two vendors fully operate the same way, standards are emerging. For viewability, we have intersection observers and open-sourced SDKs. For fraud, we’re establishing guardrails with GIVT and Sophisticated Invalid Traffic (SIVT). Of course, fraud will always be a cat and mouse game, with the industry working to keep pace with the fraudsters themselves and prevent the latest schemes from getting larger. But unless the industry changes course, non-accredited options should be stricken from the list.
- There is certainly an incentive to identify more fraud or claim you’re not affected. In the wake of WhiteOps’s Methbot reveal, rather than remain quiet, many vendors and DSPs have all stated they weren’t materially affected. Who is correct, and how much harm was done to those that were actually affected?
- Independent creative point solutions often charge a premium for ad serving, but either only serve one channel (video or mobile) or, if they are multichannel, often don’t include some of the core verification capabilities marketers require. The result is a further premium placed on customers – buying and integrating a standalone verification service because they have no other choice.
Just like the independent verification players, ad servers are not beholden to media owners and do not derive any revenue from the actual sale of the media. Most DSPs are independent, operating only as a conduit connecting the ad to the impression. At the end of the day, an ad server will bill based on total impressions served, regardless of the CPM or the impression. As long as there is transparent adherence to a standard, then the advertisers can rest assured their needs are taken care of.
True “independence” is defined as separating measurement from the media, and not the ad server. The industry clearly needs standardised verification and viewability, and standalone players can and do actually help drive these benchmarks. But marketers must realise that they have options, and depending on their needs they may be better off using an existing vendor partner for verification, rather than pay extra for another independent resource.