Advertising Still Hasn’t Solved Its (Lack Of) Transparency Problem

By Rotem Shaul, Co-CEO, Primis

Ads.txt, created in the summer of 2017 by the IAB to help publishers exert more control over their advertising inventory, and Sellers.json, released in 2019 by the IAB for buyers, are both well-intentioned and technologically well-designed.

Both attempt to identify all of the intermediaries involved in placing an ad buy, and to map the often circuitous route an ad takes on its way from brand to publisher. Both are also meant to include a simple list of all accredited resellers.

The problem with ads.txt and sellers.json is that they’re too damn complicated.

The latest ads.txt specs are 19 pages long, and it also has an explainer guide that is 12 pages long. Not many have the time and resources to read and fully grasp 31 pages of information. The result is ads.txt files have become overloaded with extraneous information — a wall of text as complicated and indecipherable as the ad tech marketplace itself. Many publishers are lost in the dark, losing control over who is actually selling their inventory.

There are three types of methods to handle ads.txt

  1. Oversight – many publishers don’t understand the operational side, so when a vendor asks them to add dozens of lines on their behalf, they do, no questions asked. When a relationship with a seller ends, they don’t remove their lines from the file. Over time, their file grows to 100’s, sometimes even 1000’s lines long, exposing them to domain spoofing, fraud, latency, and more.
  2. Apprehension – Some publishers fear what they don’t understand, so they just unlist everything they don’t know and go-to defense. They have a very short list of sellers they work with, and they are unwilling to try anything new, missing a lot of the innovation that is developing in our industry.
  3. Hard work – some publishers invest a lot of resources to fully understand the complexities of our industry, to balance fear and opportunity. Those publishers are usually big and can hire professional ad ops and tech people.

Unfortunately, as time goes by, more and more publishers choose the first two paths, and fewer publishers are able to work extremely hard to deal with transparency initiatives. The transparency initiatives are not transparent enough for the people they are meant to serve, and everyone is losing.

Meanwhile, fraudsters learned how to manipulate the system by taking advantage of the lack of understanding and knowledge of the people who operate it. Last year, consulting firm PwC found that just 26% of marketers’ programmatic ad spend ends up as viewable ad impressions. A separate PwC study found that 15% of ad spend vanishes into an “unknown delta.” Only 51% of ad spend actually makes its way to publishers. Of that 51%, about half is wasted on fraud and non-viewable impressions.

The worst part about the lack of transparency is that it prevents marketers from spending more on digital. If brands and agencies had a better idea of where their money was going and was confident their ad spend wasn’t being wasted, ad spend would increase, and all parties would benefit.

Ads.txt and sellers.json are extremely efficient when used correctly. If we find a way to make the operational aspects of these initiatives easy, so they are just as useful to the CMO and entry-level agency buyers as they are to data analysts and the engineers building the code, the industry will experience a renaissance of new collaborations as the supply chain cleans up and trust returns to its natural place.

Transparency means total visibility into every stage of the media supply chain. But transparency also means that everyone can understand what’s going on. Until we achieve that, the media supply chain will remain just like it was four years ago: crappy.