Tremendous Industry Momentum Working Together to Raise Standards: Q&A with John Murphy, OpenX

In association with OpenX

ExchangeWire speaks with John Murphy, VP of marketplace quality, OpenX, to discover why quality continues to be one the key focuses in digital advertising, and how publishers, advertisers, and tech partners can work together to raise standards. 

ExchangeWire: Quality has always been a concern for advertisers and publishers – why has the focus on quality increased with the adoption of programmatic technology?

John Murphy: The evolution of digital advertising – from manual buying and selling to automated processes – has brought tremendous efficiency, targeting, scale, and reach to both advertisers and publishers. But where previously the buyer and seller had a direct relationship, and could discuss any concerns with ad quality and brand safety one-on-one, in the programmatic world this direct connection tends to be much less common. When the relationship isn’t properly managed, this can lead to a mismatch of buyer and publisher intentions, or worse, fraudsters can muscle in.

We see it as the role of ad exchanges, sitting in the middle and facilitating these transactions, to make sure both buyer and seller needs are met. Everyone must play by the same defined set of rules, while being fully transparent about the nature of their ads and inventory. At present, this is not always the case.

Are these issues more of a challenge for premium than non-premium publishers?

While ad quality is important for everyone, it’s especially crucial for premium publishers. User experience is their top priority – they need to protect their brand and maintain loyal audiences. In particular, premium publishers need to guard against disruptive ads, such as in-banner video and forced redirects, which are known pain points for consumers.

Premium publishers are also more likely to provide an extensive block list of categories and brands that they feel are unsuitable for their website. We’ve had cases where some very large publishers have handed us a document that could be 30-35 pages long, spelling out exactly what types of ads are allowed on their site.

Recent developments in technology, such as the rise in server-to server connections, have also led to a heightened sensitivity to new threats – i.e. domain spoofing. Bad actors make the most money by spoofing premium inventory – like thetimes.co.uk – as these are the domains most highly valued by advertisers. But the truth is, fraudsters will try to strike wherever they see an opportunity, and it’s the whole industry’s responsibility to remain vigilant.

Looking at both ad and traffic quality, what are the wider implications for consumers?

If there is a lack of faith in the validity of traffic being sold programmatically, this remarkable, highly efficient method of transacting will either stop growing or shrink over time. And with programmatic offering the potential to grow the digital media buying industry as a whole, the challenges surrounding ad and traffic quality will eventually be resolved.

From a user standpoint, if publishers don’t deliver a satisfactory ad experience, then increasing numbers of consumers will install ad blockers. The solution to the ad-blocking challenge boils down to user experience and communication – if ads are relevant and nondisruptive, the drive to install ad blockers dissipates. As an industry, we need to communicate with users, and relay the message that we understand their concerns, and we will protect their experience.

Who should be shouldering the responsibility for the issues we’re seeing with ad quality causing ad blocking?

Everyone within the ecosystem – brands, publishers, platforms, and industry bodies, to name a few – holds their share of responsibility, which is why it’s a challenging problem to solve. Tasks that require collective administration create coordination challenges; and there may be disagreements across those players about what action is appropriate.

Every player in the ecosystem has a stake in this. Trade groups, like the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) or Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG), have a tremendous leadership role to play, and coordinating bodies must ensure all players are represented in discussions.

How can publishers and advertisers determine which ad exchange to partner with?

As a publisher, you need an exchange committed to protecting your inventory from fraud, spoofing, and misrepresentation. Too many exchanges are happy to work directly with a premium publisher and take their revenue share, but at the same time, work with networks and other entities that may be misrepresenting the publisher’s inventory. This can be through methods such as spoofing, video-to-display arbitrage, or unauthorised resale, all of which ultimately dilutes the value of the publisher’s inventory. Publishers need to ask potential exchange partners what measures they take to protect against these activities.

They also need to ensure their partners have the ability to enforce ad quality requirements. If a publisher wants to block specific brands, ad types, or categories, then the exchange must have the ability to do so with a high degree of accuracy and reliability. This requires the ability to scan and understand up to a million unique ads a day; that’s a pretty tough technical feat, and involves serious investment in systems and technology that many smaller exchange players simply can’t achieve.

Advertisers need to look for an exchange that’s fully transparent and accountable, with safeguards in place to ensure inventory is real and ads are only shown on the site the publishers claim. Brand safety has to be paramount – ads must not be shown on unsuitable pages, such as hate sites, illegal download sites, or anything that could reflect poorly on an advertiser’s brand.

What technology and techniques are OpenX using to improve ad quality?

Tackling the rise of domain spoofing is a key focus for us. I recently presented the risks of domain spoofing, unauthorised inventory resale, and video-to-display arbitrage to 25 of the largest online publishers, and there were a lot of shocked faces in the room. While some publishers had an inkling that these activities were occurring, there wasn’t an appreciation of how widespread these practices have become.

We will continue to work closely with publishers to educate them on the risks and help them uncover cases where there may be misrepresented inventory, either being spoofed or sold by someone without authorisation. This aligns well with the new IAB initiative, ads.txt – a way for publishers to specify who is authorised to sell inventory by associating a text file with the domain. The initiative will help premium publishers make the most of programmatic, while protecting respected brands and the advertising experiences they have developed.

We also want to empower publishers with more control over ad quality so they can provide the best possible user experience. At OpenX, we recently introduced a new ad quality user interface for our publishers to make it easier for them to set up ad quality block lists and other filters independently. We intend to introduce new features over the coming year to give publishers further control over the experience and make sure, while they are still monetising to the extent they want to, they are also being protective of the user experience and not driving users towards ad blockers.

If you believe the hype, it feels like we are at a point of no return when it comes to addressing the issues of ad and traffic quality – can we get past this?

Absolutely, so much progress has already been made. Fraud rates in the industry are on the downward trend, according to the most recent WhiteOps and Association of National Advertisers global report. This is the first time that’s really happened. Conversations about transparency and how to ensure inventory is being represented accurately are now front and centre. The IAB and TAG have shown great leadership – creating programmes such as the TAG antifraud certification and inventory quality guidelines that encourage exchanges and other inventory sellers to adopt best practices.

There is tremendous momentum in the industry towards quality initiatives. Over time, they will become self-reinforcing. So, in one or two years from now, we will have a much more mature industry where these challenges have been resolved, or at least significantly reduced. We’ll see a higher degree of confidence in programmatic from all players in the ecosystem. The future looks bright.