Opinion: How to end programmatic advertising's 'transparency theater'
When the curtain comes up on the summer of 2020, the stage is set in a tempest. Marketers have retooled creative strategies. Media companies have had to manage record-high levels of user engagement while navigating a business environment marked by one of the most challenging dichotomies ever: a sky-high supply of advertising impressions (due to increased audience activity) and a record-low density of demand (driven by bookings that are down and ad categories that are paused).
While we’ve made adjustments to the art of our industry, changes still need to be made to the science.
This month, a study by PwC and ISBA—which found that just 51 percent of advertiser spend on digital inventory is going to the working media—reaffirmed that we still have a transparency problem in the marketplace. There are more than seven million search results for programmatic transparency dating back nearly a decade, and the topic has been debated in industry trades and at conferences for years. While there are varying definitions of what transparency means for our industry, I believe that every transaction needs an easy-to-understand, itemized “virtual” receipt provided to every participant. This means fully disclosing any and all fees and being able to clearly trace working media dollars from marketers’ wallets to publishers’ pockets.
Yet years later, we are grappling with the same dilemmas and finding, for many, that transparency measures have barely improved. When it comes to transparency, we need to lift the veil on our industry’s murky inner workings.
The pandemic presents us with an opportunity. Many brands are still dark and plans are being retooled. As we ramp back up, we can create a new "normal" set at a higher bar.
For colleagues across the programmatic landscape, the opportunity lies in crafting a more accountable, more secure environment for our partners—creating products that will not just boost bottom lines, but allow them to unpack and inspect the programmatic ecosystem with greater efficacy. If you are burying truth in aggregate reports, saying you’re working closely with one side of the marketplace but not disclosing how, and avoiding the real-time demonstration of transparency in all of your actions, you are out of time. It’s been simply too long to expect brands to continue to wait for improvements. If this isn’t your No. 1 priority, it should be.
We need to make transactions easy to verify. We need common taxonomies that lend themselves to audits by third parties like PwC. We need every platform to support always-on APIs that retrieve transaction logs (“virtual receipts”) so they can be leveraged by buyers and sellers to conduct audits at any time. And this needs to become the rule, not the exception.
If my latte at Starbucks comes with a receipt at the till, surely programmatic—the most sophisticated and scaled buying channel in existence—can mirror the basic mechanics of that transaction. For those who challenge this channel’s sophistication: Visa can process up to 65,000 transactions a second. Programmatic’s delimiter is millions, in fractions of seconds. If we don’t make these improvements now, at a time when everyone is seeking savings and efficiency on every dollar spent, when will we?
Our clients’ missions are more important than ever before. Supporting today’s brands means supporting the global economy, and empowering those brands to continue advertising with premium publishers ensures trusted news outlets can keep their doors open, lights on, and rigorously reported stories in consumers’ inboxes.
These are uncharted waters. But as during previous challenges (the dot com bubble burst, the financial crisis of '08), programmatic has the capacity to weather a storm and improve itself on the other side. In the words of Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Let’s be optimists and make the most of this time, emerging from this crisis stronger, more transparent and more resilient than we entered it.