The Rise of Poor Quality: Supply Pathing a Route to Quality

Richard Nicolson

Head of dentsu Media Exchange, Global Addressable Media team, dentsu

Anyone who has seen or read The Big Short will be familiar with Dr. Michael Burry’s method for assessing the quality of Mortgage-Backed Securities. Quite simply, he looked inside. When he did, he found that a large portion of what they were made of were poor quality, and therefore the Security was likely to fail.

Digital advertising finds itself in a similar position, and even the biggest digital advertising company in the world (Google) isn’t exempt. Blending good and poor-quality sites to achieve ‘vanity metrics’ like viewability and click through rate (CTR) has been in the industry press lately. How can buyers judge what good inventory is, whilst maintaining performance? Not only that, how can they take clients on a journey to adapt their mindset if they are attached to these vanity metrics?

Beyond Brand Safety

Brand safety tools, such as Integral Ad Science (IAS) and DoubleVerify (DV), are designed to remove pages containing content that is egregiously bad, or controversial in nature. There are, however, a tranche of sites whose content is sufficiently bland to be ignored by brand safety tools but may not be suitable for brands to run on.

Made for advertising (MFA) are sites that contain many ad slots, typically sticky banner ads, skins, and autoplay videos. The ads will have high refresh rates, and the site will have a poor user experience. The site users are real and are engaged in genuine, if poor quality, content, but the duration of engagement is brief, and the users are typically sourced through content recommendation companies.

When advertisers are using metrics such as viewability, CTR and view-through rate (VTR), the ad appears to be performing well, as these sites are optimised to achieve success with these metrics. They also pass invalid tracking (IVT) and brand safety checks, clear with low prices, and provide last touch conversions.

The Rise of Poor Quality

Unfortunately, whilst the metrics look good, these sites are doing nothing for the real-world success of campaigns. Research[1] has shown that MFA inventory delivers a “large conversion deficit” and has “no impact on consumer behaviour”. MFA is a waste of ad spend and may also be a net negative for brand sentiment, due to negative feelings generated by the poor onsite user experience.

Further research[2] has shown that ads placed on low clutter pages have an 82% increase in aided ad recall and 62% increase in unaided ad recall, compared to ads on high clutter pages. In addition, the large number of ad slots produce a large amount of carbon. The same research found that average carbon emissions (gCO2e) per webpage ranged significantly between high-cluttered (10) vs. low-cluttered (0.8).

High clutter and MFA sites have grown from 7% to 19% between 2020-22. This has been attributed to advertisers’ need to see increases in those vanity metrics, such as CTR and viewability.

Taking Control

How do advertisers tackle the trend towards poor quality sites, and their poor outcomes, so we can lead the market in quality inventory sourced from sustainable publishers?

The first step is to take control of the media that is being bought. Ensure that only good quality partners are being used and adopt a ‘trust but verify’ approach. Verify the publishers and domains that partners are running with by asking for a sitelist. If this is unavailable, ask why, and don’t be afraid to cut sites you don’t agree with. There is plenty of scale in good quality sites, research has shown that a handful of publishers snatch up 80% of media spend for an average campaign. In summary, it is not necessary to chase the longtail (low value, high reach sites).

If running media directly in a demand side platform (DSP), always use an allow list, and check this regularly. Combine this with working only with supply side platforms (SSPs) that are good quality and are trusted. Be wary of merely running a sitelist across all exchanges. Unfortunately, bad quality exchanges, which includes some of the biggest, are vulnerable to domain spoofing – the practice whereby it looks like the buy is for a particular domain, but is actually for another. Therefore, it’s advisable to run a domain list within an SSP, isolating individual publisher accounts.

Once there is control of the media buying, it’s necessary to educate clients as to the above, and encourage them to adopt the path of good quality supply. Clients may be addicted to cheap reach, CTR and/or viewability. However, cheap does not mean quality, viewability can be gamed, and the value of a CTR was roundly disproved over a decade ago[3]. The future of media buying, especially in a post-cookie, privacy-safe world, is with investing in good quality sites, to maximise attention, reduce carbon, and deliver successful outcomes for clients.

Supply Pathing

Related to content is supply path. Working with trusted SSPs, it is possible to cut out resellers in the supply chain, and with it, all the extra unnecessary fees and carbon produced. It’s a win to be able to demonstrate this to clients.

Consolidating onto trusted SSPs opens up opportunities for product collaboration, as well as better service and rates. Product collaboration can extend to new data partnerships – audience or contextual, which will be ever more important in a post cookie and privacy-safe world.

As we at dentsu invest more in good quality publishers, especially in local markets, we can gain advantages in terms of price, priority, and data. Collaboration between global and local teams can ensure everyone has the confidence to buy from good quality local publishers, that due to dentsu’s partnerships, we can offer market leading media and data.

Moving Forward

Taking control of our media and supply chain is crucial in the current digital advertising climate. Working only with curated, good quality media, will give us a sound base to work from for our clients. Educating them on the importance of attention, as well as the deficiencies of vanity metrics, puts us on a good path. Combining that with a thoughtful approach to privacy-safe and cookie-less targeting, sets everyone up to deliver industry leading and productive campaigns.

[1] The Marketer's Guide to Supply Path Optimization, Jounce, 2023

[2] Ad Filtering Users, Magna & eyeota, 2023

[3]Only 8 Percent of Internet Users Account for 85 Percent of all Clicks” Natural Born Clickers, Comscore and Starcom, 2009