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The future of trading and ad buying in digital publishing

17 Jun 2020  |  Richard Reeves 
The future of trading and ad buying in digital publishing

The AOP's Richard Reeves charts the challenges and opportunities facing the online publishing market

The future for digital publishing was under discussion long before the arrival of Covid-19. Overzealous keyword blocklists and a heavy handed brand safety approach was symptomatic of the pre-existing concerns, only to be exacerbated by the evolving news agenda of 2020.

But now, a spotlight on transparency in the supply chain has given insight at a level never seen before on the deeper issues at play causing the disconnect between publishers and advertisers.

Following the publication of the Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study from ISBA,  we hosted a discussion with publishers and a programmatic agency to debate the findings and what needs to happen to secure the industry’s future.

We also talked about the impact of Covid-19, the need to move towards a fairer, more transparent ecosystem, and how we should be refocussing on premium content and cross-industry collaboration.

Renewed focus on content quality

A key issue for our members at the moment is how Covid-19 and now, Black Lives Matter, is highlighting an over reliance on content verification tools at the expense of premium publishers. In our panel, Guy Edmunds, UK Trade Director at The Guardian, explained the publication is seeing unprecedented traffic levels, but at the peak of the pandemic, 60% of the articles produced were classified as unacceptable by content verification tools, despite being premium material produced by classically trained journalists.

Equally Karen Eccles, Senior Director of Commercial Innovation at The Telegraph, explained a spike in keyword blocking has plateaued at a very high level, resulting in large volumes of content being blocked, including lifestyle articles that reference coronavirus but are positive in nature.

The publication ran a study which showed a simple keyword tool blocked 80% of URLs. When the same URLs were analysed for tone, however, around 60% of blocked impressions were released, illustrating brands need to take a more nuanced approach that understands brand suitability rather than just applying blunt brand safety rules.

Similarly, we are seeing the exact same issue again with the news coverage on George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. Premium publishers recognise the sensitivity of the subject as well as brand concerns about being associating with the content, but much of that content also contains positive, informative and educational messaging, and so from a brand perspective should not be blocked.

One cause of this over reliance on content verification is the volume of programmatic impressions that are served in non-premium, long-tail environments, where content quality is questionable.

Agencies are under pressure from advertisers to buy extremely low average CPMs, while programmatic marketplaces are built around audience and scale, meaning they need to open up to a wide spectrum of publishers to get enough impressions to achieve their goals.

The results of the ISBA study showed that on average, impressions for participating advertisers appeared on over 40,000 websites – mostly non-premium – illustrating the scale of the issue.

Moving forward, digital media trading must refocus on premium content. Success with advertising is about more than just following an audience; it must take into account the user’s frame of mind, the context and how engaged they are, which is all impacted by content quality. Matthew McIntyre, VP of programmatic for EMEA at Essence Global suggested advertisers and agencies need to be rigorous in the types of KPIs they are using to optimise spend, to make sure the largest share goes towards the publishers where they know the context of the content is really going to make a difference.

Rather than relying on ubiquitous performance metrics such as click-through rates, the industry must shift towards metrics that take into account factors such as time spent, engagement and user experience.

To that end The Telegraph recently launched Metrics That Matter, allowing it to track and report on a campaign’s performance across attention metrics such as attention quality, interaction and active dwell.

A shift in the KPIs and metrics used to measure digital advertising will enable publishers to demonstrate the value of their content more clearly and help convince advertisers to shift spend to premium environments, but these metrics need to be adopted universally so advertisers and agencies can compare how properties are performing across the media plan.

Cross-industry collaboration

One of the most important aspects of the ISBA study was the end-to-end mapping of programmatic advertising supply chains. It compared log-level data from supply-side platforms (SSPs) with corresponding data from demand side platforms (DSPs), which has never previously been achieved.

But, as the panellists agreed, this process shouldn’t be so difficult. It is currently made overly complex by an opaque supply chain with a lack of standardisation around data access and data permissions.

Daniel Powell-Rees, director of revenue operations at Dennis Publishing, believes all parties have been complicit in creating an incredibly complex ecosystem where new technologies are continually used to squeeze the supply chain, and everyone needs to play their part in fixing it.

Individual buyers and publishers can start with simple steps such as reviewing and simplifying their own supply chains and making sure all the right contractual obligations are in place. And advertisers and publishers need to work more closely together, ideally using simple methods for buy and sell- side matching, to ensure every element of the supply chain is driving value.

The ideal solution would be some kind of consistent impression ID that is carried from the publisher’s ad server all the way through to the DSP and stored by each party along the supply chain to precisely identify supply paths.

Transparency is more than just where the money goes in and where it comes out, it’s about where an impression feeds through each part of the supply chain so buyers and publishers can decide what value is represented by each step in the process. A solution that allows impression identity throughout the supply chain would dramatically improve transparency and must be a high priority for the industry moving forward.

The ISBA study is already driving industry collaboration in the form of a cross-industry taskforce to study the causes of the unknown delta and an independently-led effort to work on standardisation and data sharing, to facilitate robust supply-chain verification. ISBA is openly engaging with the government – specifically the Department​ ​for​ ​Digital,​ ​Culture,​ ​Media​ ​and​ ​Sport (DCMS) and Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – and providing fortnightly updates, meaning there is a level of accountability which will help maintain momentum and drive change.

Covid-19 may be exacerbating the disconnect between publishers and advertisers, but it is largely shining a light on an existing situation that urgently needs to be addressed. The future of media trading and ad buying in digital publishing will depend on the industry refocussing on content quality – enabling premium publishers to prove the value of their inventory – and on all participants working together to increase accountability through standardisation of data access and collaborative transparency initiatives.


Richard Reeves is Managing Director, AOP

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