Facebook’s ongoing collision with any remaining societal expectations of privacy has lit the world on fire with heated debate. As noted by The New York Times columnist Kevin Roose in his recent column, “Facebook is complicated. That shouldn’t stop lawmakers.,” without a clear understanding of Facebook’s business model or the technical framework underpinning it, Congress demands that Facebook address privacy issues. We can see how effective this is: Facebook has been apologizing for a decade, while the cries get louder for the fox to do a better job of watching the henhouse.
We face similar issues in the advertising ecosystem and have arguably taken a similar approach. While it’s very easy to blame Facebook in this situation, technologists generally write software to solve specific problems. Any software product manager can tell you that software requirements need to be more detailed than “privacy.” Facebook has, on the one hand, its core task of maximizing value for shareholders, but on the other hand, has the task of meeting somewhat nebulous expectations of privacy. Is it really that surprising that the result is the gradual rollout of features that are then judged to be less-than-adequate by consumer protection advocates?
Brands demand transparency and safety but are frequently willing to leave the definition of how to meet these requirements to companies that financially benefit from their absence. While some brands are beginning to develop enough fluency in ad tech to be able to ask more pointed technical questions than the average congressman, it’s definitely an uphill battle to acquire and maintain the necessary proficiency to operate in a constantly shifting ecosystem.
Advertisers are clear about what they don’t want—namely, millions of dollars flushed down the toilet by ad spots for bots, or their hand-moisturizer ad being shown in front of a video on yakuza pinky-clipping. However, the passively vigilant stance that many brands are taking only serves to enforce the don’t-ask-don’t-tell mentality prevalent in the digital advertising industry. The one thing that is clear is: Advertisers are getting good at cycling through different agencies and vendors on a regular basis. So is it really surprising that the specific problems with the ecosystem aren’t bubbling to the surface and volunteering to be solved?
What’s the answer? Perhaps it is time for brands to invest in taking a more active role in changing the industry. Maybe some of the investment in attending PR crisis conferences for after-the-fact damage control could be better allocated.
What does active participation look like and how do brands bring about real change? First, like our friends in Congress, it’s time to stop asking surface-level questions and making generic complaints. Instead, either hit the books and acquire the necessary expertise to be able to fully understand the technology or seek out partners who can act as trusted advisors.
Second, it’s time to pop the hood and get your hands dirty. The technology has a defined architecture, and that framework can be changed to drive better results for the buy-side. The whole programmatic ecosystem, in particular, has been initially designed with scale in mind and has only in the last few years begun to correct itself to address transparency and quality issues. The ad standards are the rules and requirements that define the behavior of the ad ecosystem components. Consult with expert partners to translate general requirements for transparency into a more granular collection of data points and to determine what technical changes need to be made to the standards to get that data.
Finally, after the changes have been proposed and adopted, work with each other and with partners to coordinate buy-side pressure and demand adoption of necessary changes. The ecosystem is generally complex and slow to change, but if the money stops flowing, it has an invigorating effect on all parties involved.
We have seen some great progress recently—to its credit, it’s been largely driven by the ad tech ecosystem itself so far—the recently released Authorized Digital Sellers (ads.txt) and the open measurement software development kit (OM SDK) for in-app ad measurement are two good examples. The jury is still out on the outcome of GDPR, which may ironically lead to less transparency. Advertisers and agencies need to get more involved to make sure they understand what aspects of the standards need to be supported and to push for their adoption, and they should be more involved in proactively working with partners to solve business problems by proposing specific technical changes.
The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) announced in 2016 that ad fraud was now the second largest source of income for organized crime after drug trafficking. It’s also played a clear role in eroding our progress to date toward individual equality and democratic governing principles. This is more than a business problem, and I believe that most people in the ecosystem want to see an improvement. It’s time to work together on concrete next steps.