Joe Barone has had a lot of “you mean to tell me” meetings with clients. These are the ones where clients sputter, “You mean to tell me I’ve been wasting half my money for five years?” Barone is the managing director of digital ad operations for GroupM, and he prefers to initiate these meetings himself. He’d rather do it before his clients read about advertising problem in the trades. Besides, that gives him an opportunity to present a solution and rebuild trust.
One reason Barone has been having these meetings is the lingering issue of online ad viewability . With around half of all web ads viewable, that means half of digital budgets are simply wasted. Speaking on a panel called “Transparency and Trust: What the Future Looks Like in a Programmatic World,” held in Manhattan’s Civic Hall  Thursday night, he and other panelists dissected the problems facing programmatic sales operations and the ways to solve them. Brand safety is an emotional problem for clients, he said, “but half your dollars getting wasted is what keeps your money in television.”
For panelist Matthew Hogg, head of programmatic at LinkedIn, programmatic has three main problems: brand safety, verification, and fraud. And of the three, fraud is the biggest issue. There are a lot of bad actors, he said, because there’s so much money involved. While these three problems tend to get grouped together, they’re all different.
Once they’d identified the problems facing programmatic sales and destroying client trust, they talked about solutions. “There’s no silver bullet,” Hogg said, no one fix that solves all issues. One step is to determine brand safe environments and offer verification to buyers so they know exactly what they’re getting. There’s a need to be continually vigilant.
Ryan Pauley, vice president of revenue operations and general manager of Concert at Vox Media, says he’s been doing a lot of client education. While he sees the value in sales automation, he understands that certain problems are going to come with that. In the short term, the best way to approach the problem of bad actors is by blocking any outlet that’s obviously fraudulent. “You can start to cut out the bottom 20 percent,” he said, noting that if everyone did that for a few quarters the ecosystem would be much healthier. Don’t over-engineer the solution, he cautioned.
As difficult as it will be, the industry needs to solve issues that destroy brand trust and prevent them from cropping up again. Most fraud guidelines have some kind of threshold, noted Kathleen Comer, vice president of client services at The Trade Desk, but why have a threshold, at all? Any fraud is not acceptable, she asserted. She was the first panelist of the night—but not the only one—to advocate using ads.txt files to block unauthorized inventory, and has been active in getting publishers to adopt the system.
In the months since YouTube’s brand safety problem earlier this year, programmatic sales have been “roaring” back, said Todd Krizelman, CEO and co-founder of MediaRadar. The YouTube issue grabbed people’s attention and led to the company hiring thousands of people to verify videos manually. While that’s not an elegant solution, it’s working. “Elegant is automating it. Inelegant is hiring thousands of people to just sit around watching videos,” he said.
Because of transparency issues, some clients have resorted to bringing their buying in-house, a solution Comer saw as easier said than done. The biggest focus now is on transparency, Hogg said. Every part of the ad supply chain needs transparency. If the industry can focus on that for the next year, it can grow the market.