When did blockchain become the official path to transparency for digital advertising? Don’t get me wrong: Distributed ledgers are a promising new technology with the potential to revolutionize many aspects of our digital lives. Digital currencies built on blockchain have already proved to be a significant, if somewhat erratic, economic force. Cryptocurrency powered by blockchain has produced skyrocketing values, although some of that value has tumbled as quickly as it rose. But beyond the boom and bust of crypto, blockchain hasn’t really delivered on any of the big promises made by its biggest boosters.
At a moment when the demand for transparency is at an all-time high, we should ask ourselves some important questions before we place all our bets on a blockchain miracle to solve the problems that may already be well within our grasp with the tools we have at hand.
Can it scale?
The existing ad-tech ecosystem already has one major advantage that a blockchain solution would likely struggle to replicate: scale. Any solution to the challenge of transparency is going to require a wide-ranging and scalable infrastructure. Currently, major ad-tech platforms do the difficult work of creating the infrastructure in which various players in the digital advertising ecosystem transact business. DSPs, SSPs and ad exchanges do this by aggregating the supply of inventory and the demand for that inventory. These platforms charge fees to buyers and sellers in order to recover the costs of that infrastructure investment.
For a blockchain-based solution to be effective at scale would require a similarly large infrastructure investment. However, unlike the current ad-tech ecosystem, there would be no immediate means to recover that investment through fees. Instead, any attempt to create greater transparency through blockchain would have to rely on the widespread adoption of open-source technology. In other words, the creators of a blockchain transparency solution would be forced to give away a big piece of their technology for free.
Fixing the unbroken
Transparency is a challenge worth focusing on, but ad tech made leaps and bounds worth of progress already, much of it through an industry-wide effort that involved tech providers partnering closely with brands, agencies and publishers to ensure that everyone was on the same page and armed with the right tools. Many of those advances would have been impossible without the ad-tech industry and the infrastructure it provides.
Consider initiatives like ads.txt, which helps to fight fraud. Launched by the IAB Tech Lab with support from major players in the ad-tech industry, its wide adoption has helped to curb fraud by controlling who has the right to sell their inventory. More recently, the ad-tech industry collectively supported the rollout of the Open Measurement SDK, a software development kit designed to standardize measurement across mobile apps. This effort helps mobile app publishers gain trust from buy-side partners and creates a single transparent standard on which to evaluate mobile inventory. These efforts would be impossible without ad tech.
The current contenders
Moving beyond the transparency innovations championed by the whole digital advertising community and supported by ad-tech providers, it’s worth considering how marketers seeking more transparency can take advantage of existing tools. When industry leaders like P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard calls for ad tech to clean up the digital supply chain, I think they might be forgetting that there’s a whole ad-tech sector devoted to doing just that. Verification vendors provide solutions to detect and block fraud, ensure that impressions are viewable and even to protect brands from appearing near risky content.
Unlike a blockchain-powered solution that might emerge, marketers can leverage these ad-tech tools today to gain greater transparency into their media buys. These verification solutions are integrated with all the prominent DSPs and SSPs. Ad tech-powered transparency solutions have even begun making headway into notoriously opaque spaces like the walled gardens of Facebook, YouTube and mobile in-app environments. These solutions exist today, cover most desktop display inventory and are rapidly expanding across mobile and niche environments.
There’s no disputing that blockchain has buzz, but for an issue as critical as transparency in digital advertising, buzz isn’t going to cut it. The ad-tech space has taken a beating for transparency challenges that have been part of digital advertising since day one. In reality, the industry has already made massive strides toward solving some of our biggest transparency challenges. It’s time to double down on proven providers rather than embrace a solution that has all the earmarks of a passing fad.