The perfect storm

No, dear advertiser, we are not going to talk about Captain Billy Tyne, aka Nespresso-George and even less about some weather god. No, we need to talk about programmatic buying in this blog again, yet again, really-again?

USA Today has undergone some major changes. The newspaper is no small thing, reaching 7 million readers every day and, along with a whole range of other print brands, it is part of the portfolio of Gannett, its parent company. It was Braedon Vickers who recently kicked up a storm. In 2021, Vickers worked as a software engineer and developed a tool that skims some 2 million websites every 2 weeks, to keep track of all the information and assigns an index to ensure links can be created between the publisher and the ad tech companies. In human terms: it tells you where and why your ads are showing up.

And what did this reveal? Gannett sent billions of ads to the wrong sites in its portfolio for 9 months (!) without anyone even noticing. So, advertisers paid for USA Today and ended up on the Lebanon Daily News, another brand in Gannett’s portfolio.

Programmatic buying

How is that possible, we hear you ask, dear advertiser? Well, the is answer is simple: programmatic buying!

Mind you, don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater: programmatic buying is here to stay and will even extend to all media. Moreover, it can also work well and smoothly, and it can be good for your brand(s). It’s just that it has become so ingrained and normal that we lump programmatic buying in with traditional media buying in terms of tracking, reporting and control. And that should be avoided at all costs! You would expect brands like Nike, Kia, Starbucks, Spotify, and others to do their homework and have things in order, right? Well apparently not, as they were affected by this incident, among other brands. No ad exchange or DSP noticed this, but no MRC-certified fraud tool identified it either. Or maybe it was reported, and the brand manager didn’t see it (paying for tools that aren’t used?), the agency didn’t see it (overload of work or limited seniority?) and the media auditor didn’t see it either. We know that auditors often come in after the facts, but there are live-verification tools available today and surely, they should detect that kind of thing immediately.

In short, it seems to be the perfect storm but even then, we wonder how something like this could last for 9 months? Odd.

What can we learn from this to help you, dear advertiser, and most importantly, how can you avoid this?

There are some basic rules that we absolutely need to remind you of and that will go a long way:

  • Always choose transparent buying without fail. Paul Polman put it nicely at the recent UBA Trendsday: “Trust can only come from transparency”. Even you get an offer, often at a cheaper price, don’t accept it. After all, if somebody tells you: “We can do it 50% cheaper but then you don’t get to see where and when your ads have appeared and you have no audit rights”, that is no longer acceptable considering everything we know, correct? Who would be happy to accept this, without fear of violating the principles of due diligence?
  • Make sure checks are in place… and don’t do it for us but for yourself, dear advertiser! Trust is good, it’s necessary, and it forms the basis of any good business relationship, but checking is better! If you buy a lot of digital media (proportional in the media mix), then put in place a system of permanent checks. This is immediate and direct, no detours. The tooling exists and is affordable. If your spend is minor but increasing and you’ve been opting for programmatic quite often in recent years, then have periodic checks performed. Any anomalies can always be rectified by your media partner(s).
  • Start by amending your contract as far as “audit rights” are concerned. The clause that was acceptable until a few years ago has now become obsolete. You risk not being able/allowed to perform the audit if your contract is not up to date. By the way, just send us a short email and we’ll gladly forwarder you the recent version of a robust audit clause made by fma, free of charge. Incidentally, the fact that your contract contains such a clause sends a clear signal to everyone involved in this contract: “Don’t fool with me!”.

Of course, using an “insurance policy” such as the DAT label (where you have upfront certainty about where and how your ad appears) is an additional guarantee. Even more drastic is insourcing the programmatic buying part! Utopia? Not at all, the tools are becoming increasingly user-friendly and affordable and that too is an unstoppable trend.

In the end, dear advertiser, it always comes down to the same thing of course: use common sense! Don’t get caught up in stories that are too good (i.e.: too cheap) to be true. Choose clarity and quality over non-transparent volume.

It will help you and your brand(s) much more in the long run!