Google has costly yellow ad blunder

A Google training exercise goes south while publishers reap a big payout

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A depiction of the ad unit
A depiction of the ad unit Credit: Ad Age

A yellow ad has publishers seeing green following a multi-million dollar programmatic blunder.

On Tuesday at about 7 p.m. ET, many publishers both in the U.S. and Australia saw many--if not all--of their ad slots filled with display ads featuring nothing but the color yellow. They were up for 45 minutes.

The costly mistake occurred during a Google training program when an employee accidentally purchased the 300x250 ad units, the sources said. Publishers who checked their logs saw the advertisements came from theiconic.au.com, an Australian retailer.

Google confirmed to Ad Age that it would honor the payments.

Needless to say, Christmas came early for some publishers.

"We were making a grand in less than a few seconds," says Rishi Jethi, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based publication Illumeably. "I thought it was some crazy Q4 action or maybe our reporting was screwed up."

Jethi says he checked his website about 7 p.m. ET and saw nothing but yellow ads. When he checked the site's data, he saw the website was getting roughly $270 CPMs, meaning he was paid that amount each time the ad appeared 1,000 times.

He adds that the yellow advertisement followed him wherever he went on the web. "It was showing up on all the big publishers like CNN, Forbes," he says. "I'm sure they lost tens of millions of dollars." Another publisher Ad Age spoke with, but asked to remain anonymous, says they saw payments "north of $100,000."

Calls made to The Iconic were not returned; its agency, DMG360, also did not respond.

In an emailed statement, a Google spokesperson confirmed the error, saying, "An advertiser training exercise led to an error where actual spend happened on publisher sites for approximately 45 minutes. As soon as we were made aware of this honest mistake we worked quickly to stop the campaigns running. We will honor payments to publishers for any ads purchased and are working hard to put safeguards in place to ensure this doesn't happen again."

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