Unilever’s take on ad blocking, viewability & the need for greater industry consolidation

Sarah Mansfield, Unilever’s VP media, Europe and LatAm and global operations, will play a key role in assessing the quality of entrants for this year’s Digital Trading Awards (DTA).

Ahead of the closing date for entries (12 February) she speaks with The Drum about her hopes that market consolidation will positively impact the quality of inventory bought and sold traded programmatically, the shift towards more closed trading environments, plus the need for more stringent ad verification and viewability standards.

With media spend using programmatic media buying technologies set to hit £2.5bn in the UK this year (see chart below), the need for brands to gauge the potential of the technology, and just as importantly how it works, is at the top of many marketers‘ to-do lists.

With a reputed $8bn-a-year global media budget, FMCG giant Unilever was one of the early-movers in this space having elected to eschew the centralised programmatic media investment hub (or ‘trading desk’) Xaxis in favour of instructing its media agency to work with a third-party - ad tech outfit Turn.


This sector of the industry has been defined in recent years by growing levels of M&A, with ad tech outfits increasingly being bought up by some of the industry’s largest players (such as LiveRail’s sale to Facebook), as well as large advertising networks taking tech in-house (such as GroupM’s purchase of the Exchange Lab.

Research firm Results International claims the disclosed spend on such deals last year was $14.5bn, with Mansfield, Unilever’s head of media for Europe and LatAm, explaining that she hopes this will result in more premium ad spaces being traded using such platforms, as opposed to long-tail, or distressed, inventory (historically the kind of opportunities associated with such tech).

“This is a growing sector so there is room for all. Hopefully it will continue to improve the quality of inventory and push the boundaries of targeting capabilities and platforms available to advertisers,” she says.

Different trading models

This desire for more quality media placements (as well as additional assurances over issues like brand safety, etc.) has also led to the rise of private marketplaces (PMPs), contrasting to more open ‘exchange-based trading’, where premium media owners invite select buyers to have first refusal on its inventory.

Premium publishers that have historically seen ad tech used to erode their rate cards, have been quick to embrace such technologies, recognising that using this technology and trading model can help reverse this historic trend.

And it’s a message that is also proving popular with marketers, as spending via such platforms continues to rise. “This is a trend we have also noted and we do ourselves strike PMP deals,” notes Mansfield. “This is primary to secure the quality and quantity of inventory we require to target the right audiences and content”.


Such measures have also been seen as key to edging out the industry’s bad actors (another historic challenge for ad tech providers) with issues around click fraud, etc., continuing to dog the sector.

Mansfield notes how fraud is still a “big issue”, pointing out that it holds back further potential advertiser investment. She adds: “We need to industry to adopt verification as standard and establish also higher viewability standards [to ensure that ads paid-for are actually seen]. Too many adverts are served but not seen by consumers.”

Ad blocking

Such malpractices are partly responsible for the ongoing rise of ad blockers (yet another defining narrative of the last year) as web audiences (and in particular mobile users) seek a less disruptive user experience.

Obviously, this trend is a more immediate threat to media owners, but it also frustrates brands eager to engage with specific audience types, and Mansfield believes the best way to offset this trend is through a collaborative approach.

“Ad blocking will continue to be a challenge for the industry. I am sure there will be much discussion on this topic in 2016 and innovation in this sector both good and bad,” she says. “My hope is that it will drive publishers and advertisers to aim for higher standards that improve the user experience.”

She highlights how the IAB’s US-led LEAN standards issued in the latter end of 2015, but yet to be reissued by its UK counterpart, are a “good start” to tackling the issue, but adds that she would like to see “the equivalent from publishers”.

The need for collaboration

Many still bemoan the disparity between data-driven marketing techniques (and those who espouse such techniques), and the advertising industry's creative community. Why does this gap continue to exist, and can you suggest any ways to help improve the lack of cohesion?

At the core of addressing the improvements in the online advertising experience will be the successful fusion of data-led advertising techniques, along with top flight creative executions. However, a cultural difference still exists between these pairings in the industry, with Mansfield echoing frustrations voiced earlier to The Drum over agencies’ ability to dynamically deliver different creatives to specific audiences.

“It is a relatively new industry still and therefore there will naturally be a disconnect where one leads the other for a while, says Mansfield. “Platforms to dynamically deliver creative content to consumers through programmatic are still relatively new in the marketplace. The adoption of these will increase rapidly.”

The Drum's DTAs ceremony will be held on May 4

The awards are held in association with The Trade Desk and sponsored by Audience2Media, eXelate, Integral Ad Science, Rubicon Project, Sphere DigitalRecruitment and TubeMogul.

Ronan Shields

I cover digital media trading and martech for The Drum magazine, plus I write my own opinion pieces, I don't really commission them.

All by Ronan