As appeared in AdWeek on 19 July 2022, read here.

As digital advertising enters its third decade, advertisers are still spending millions funding spammy “made for advertising” sites and disinformation, a new report finds.

Media analytics ad-tech firm Ebiquity, in partnership with programmatic research firms Jounce Media and DeepSee, found $115 million in ad spend went toward spammy made for advertising (MFA) sites—7.8% of the programmatic budget globally and 9.8% in the U.S. The sample was drawn from $1.47 billion spent by 42 Ebiquity clients from January 2020 to March 2022.

The ad spend toward made for advertising sites not only represents a missed opportunity for advertisers to fund quality media, but potential waste as well.

“The research studies we’ve done through our media lab all show high-quality content drives better ad performance,” said Joshua Lowcock, global chief media officer at UM Worldwide.

Furthermore, a separate sample of just over $750 million of ad spend across 10 Ebiquity clients found that over $1 million of programmatic dollars were delivered to made for advertising websites classified as “worst offenders” by the Global Disinformation Index.

One advertiser in the sample, a global pharmaceutical company that supports the Covid-19 vaccines, was funding a website that contained anti-vaccine misinformation, said Nick Waters, CEO of Ebiquity.

Meanwhile, only $75,000 was spent on diverse suppliers of media of the second sample of $750 million in ad spend, at a time when more advertisers and agencies have made public commitments to diversity. A media buyer at a global agency, who wasn’t authorized to talk to the press, said that this finding should be taken with a grain of salt, as many advertisers fund diverse media owners via private marketplaces or direct deals, rather than via the open web.

With over $12.4 billion expected to be spent on open exchange programmatic in the U.S. in 2022, per eMarketer, there is vast potential for marketers to inadvertently fund low-quality or harmful content, without proper mitigation measures.

“It’s a very significant problem,” Waters said. “It’s also a very significant opportunity. There is an opportunity to redirect spend from bad actors. There’s also an opportunity cost to not looking at this stuff closely.”

Weeding out bad actors

The media buyer said his agency does not recommend made for advertising sites as destinations for client media spend.

“Usually we recommend to clients to not advertise on these and go through inclusion lists where every single domain is vetted,” the media buyer said.

Spammy sites can not only potentially be an undesirable environment for ads, but are more likely to perpetrate ad fraud, Lowcock said.

“It gives you the illusion of reach when it’s not actually true reach,” Lowcock said. “Their questionable impressions are potentially non-human.”

The media buyer said despite recommendations, some advertisers running performance campaigns and looking to optimize for low cost will eschew the inclusion list approach, either bidding on the open web in its entirety or relying on exclusion lists, which cannot prevent all questionable domains from slipping through.

An inclusion list of quality sites is still sufficient to meet the reach advertisers seek, both Lowcock and the media buyer said.

Meanwhile, optimizing for low cost—and therefore potentially advertising on made for advertising spammy sites—risks losing the forest through the trees, Lowcock said.

“If you let go of the obsession of driving pricing efficiency and you talk about media quality, that resets the expectations,” he said. “Everyone is driven to the wrong incentive.”

Lowcock added that marketers should be proactively monitoring their log files, detailed records of where impressions are served, to ensure media dollars are going where marketers intend. Google, one of the largest ad-tech companies, restricts log file access, a longstanding complaint of publishers. “You need to do log file analysis on a recurrent basis,” Lowcock said.

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