Why media quality matters when it comes to cleaning up digital advertising

As fraudsters siphon off £277m from UK digital ad industry, Niall Hogan, UK managing director of Integral Ad Science, takes a look at why addressing media quality is core to cleaning up digital advertising.

Reading up on digital advertising of late may leave you with the bitter impression that the digital world is an unhappy place. Since the beginning of this year the industry press has published many differing opinions and announcements around the amount of waste in online media, such as our recent finding that £277m is wasted each year in the UK thanks to digital ad fraudsters alone.

And it is not just rates of ad fraud – the digital industry as a whole sounds depressing. Alongside unwittingly supporting fraudsters with our advertising spend, we are wasting money paying for digital ads that are not seen, and we are further depressed and throwing more money away when advertising appears on inappropriate websites, where it was never intended. The large sums quoted as being wasted each year makes it appear that the digital ecosystem opens brands up to a dark arts world of risk when they extend to reach their digital consumer.

But the digital world is not a totally unhappy place; consumers are content to be fully absorbed. According to stats from eMarketer’s report in April, UK adults spend four hours and 39 minutes of their daily waking hours online. So for brands to be able to reach this happy ‘digital’ place they need to be given greater confidence to engage today’s digital-first audience. Flooding our industry press and filling up our conference agendas with opinions on media quality concerns such as fraud, brand safety and viewabilty only serves to confuse, especially when you realise that none of these are new issues.


44.6% of ads are never viewed

13.3% of ads are blocked from inappropriate pages

12.2% of ad impressions are fraudulent and never seen by a human

*Integral Ad Science Q2 2015 UK Media Quality Report

With the torrent of differing opinions on fraudulent activity, on whether ads are in view or on increased brand risk, it appears that the UK digital industry is not only ill-equipped to address their media quality concerns but that simply understanding them is a challenge. The investment in digital advertising could and should be used more efficiently and more effectively. But do we know how to begin to do this?

Why is it that quality has now come back to the top of today’s digital advertising agenda? To understand better, let’s go way back in time, to the dawn of the online advertising era.

10 years ago, if a CMO or agency wanted to place a digital advert, they would contact a website or large media organisation direct. They would call up companies such as AOL or Yahoo, and directly buy the media space on their website of choice.

Websites worked as a proxy to an advertiser’s target audience. If you wanted to reach young men interested in online gaming you bought FHM.com, or women into fashion and beauty, you bought direct on iVillage.com. The media owner invested in understanding their online consumers, just as a magazine company would its readership, and shared this information with agencies for targeting.

As we moved through the 00s, ad networks, such as Ad.com, Specific Media, TribalFusion etc, all honed in on and developed the targeting capabilities of cookie data. No longer did you need to rely on a website’s content as a proxy for your target audience, you could actually track people’s online browsing patterns, and target them based on real historic behaviour.

This ability to target the actual online user and not just the website content opened up the potential of the internet’s long tail of inventory. Twinned with the monetary incentive of lower margin media on billions of webpages, from 2007 onwards we saw an explosion of browsing behaviour (cookie) targeting.

Our ability to target based on cookie data is very impressive and should not be underestimated. We can target browsing behaviours – data from user activity that shows what time of day users are most engaged online; we can retarget potential customers who have shown a direct interest in a product or service – data from abandoned shopping baskets; and then we can even create models of online audiences based on these browsing behaviours and purchasing patterns. This is all genuinely great stuff.

However, in the rush to find this data science modelled, exact online user, we seem to have forgotten that the person we put an advertiser’s message in front of is consuming that information within a certain environment. Where those messages are consumed is equally as important as who is consuming them. And simply not all online environments are right or desirable for the great majority of advertisers.

Does a high street brand or blue chip company, that has spent years investing in its brand and relationship with potential consumers, want all of that hard work tarnished because its digital advertising message is appearing next to inappropriate content such as before a beheading video? The simple answer is no. Look at Integral Ad Science’s Q2 2015 Media Quality report, and crudely add up all percentages (not allowing for some duplication) and you can see that up to a massive 70.1 per cent of UK digital impressions that are served potentially have media quality issues.

As an industry we need to better understand these latest concerns. Good news is that we are stepping up; great work is being done with verification technology. We are able to use the lifeblood that is data to help minimise the impact of the media quality concerns highlighted above. By collecting data from web page environments we are able to target better quality inventory, target ads that are more likely to be viewed, and target ads that are served to real humans and not bots.

We may have run over the hill with our ability to target users online but media quality is now sprinting to catch up. Understanding and addressing media quality issues is about two things: firstly, creating equilibrium again within digital advertising – finding the balance of the right message, put in front of the right person at the right time; and secondly, about reducing wastage and getting more return from investment.

Addressing media quality will be key to cleaning up digital advertising and we all need to ensure we understand the concerns and have technology in place to guarantee future investment in the digital industry.