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Brand Strategy Future of Media Media Planning and Buying

New report detects widespread adtech failures as ads from top brands persist on MFA sites


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

March 11, 2024 | 11 min read

A damning new study from Adalytics suggests that demand-side and supply-side providers are failing to ensure that ads from major brands like Disney, Google and Procter & Gamble do not appear on spammy made-for-advertising sites.

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A new Adalytics report finds that, despite committing to blocking MFA sites, many SSPs and DSPs still transact on them / Adobe Stock

Ad quality and transparency firm Adalytics this morning published a sweeping investigation that sheds light on the adtech industry’s failures to shield major brands’ advertisements from infiltrating clickbait and spam-riddled ‘made for advertising’ (MFA) sites.

The findings indicate a significant gap in the protective measures implemented by adtech vendors, raising questions about the efficacy of current strategies employed by DSPs.

The report finds that ads for most Fortune 500 brands, including Google, Disney, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Nike, General Motors and more, frequently appear across MFA sites, despite the fact that many of the industry’s top demand-side platforms (DSPs) and supply-side platforms (SSPs) have made public commitments to mitigate or block ad placements on MFA sites. A handful of government agencies – the Army, Navy, Social Security Administration and the Federal Trade Commission – were also found to be exposed to MFA sites.

The study analyzed a sample of 22 MFA sites that meet the criteria set forth by one or more of the following: the ANA; the World Federation of Advertisers; the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers; the American Association of Advertising Agencies; Jounce Media; and Still, Adalytics acknowledges that definitions of the term ‘made for advertising’ vary.

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The report comes just months after advertising industry trade body the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) released a study on programmatic supply chain transparency that found that 21% of total ad impressions occur on MFA sites. Though a handful of trade bodies define MFA sites using slightly different parameters, the ANA said at the time that MFA sites are “largely useless for growth-oriented strategies” and claimed that they “generally provide a poor user experience and potentially damage the reputation of digital advertising overall.”

Following the release of the report, a number of leading adtech vendors made public promises to either mitigate or block MFAs entirely. And yet, says Krzysztof Franaszek, Adalytics’ founder and chief executive, “We observed many instances where those exact vendors were transacting brands’ ads on MFA through deals.” He says that companies like Microsoft, and even government entities like the US Army, bought media via a private marketplace from vendors who claim to filter out MFAs – and yet saw their ads run on such sites.

The report points a finger at adtech’s biggest players for failing to better protect brands’ ad buys. In fact, almost all leading SSPs and DSPs were found transacting on MFA sites in Adalytics’ report.

Despite a shift in expectations following the ANA’s 2023 transparency report, more than 80% of SSPs slated to present at a March 2024 ANA event continue to actively serve ads on MFA sites for ANA member brands. Indicted SSPs in the Adalytics report include Google, Magnite, 33Across, GumGum, LoopMe, OpenX, TripleLift, Sharethrough, Criteo, PubMatic, Ogury and many others.

DSPs found transacting on MFA sites include Adobe, Roku, Yahoo, Samsung Ads, Xandr, Beeswax, StackAdapt and others. It’s worth noting that two leading DSPs – The Trade Desk’s DSP and Walmart’s DSP – were not found to be transacting on MFA sites.

Additionally, the world’s top advertising agency holding companies and networks – including IPG, Omnicom, WPP, Publicis, Havas and Dentsu – were found buying media on MFA sites.

Ads infiltrate MFA sites through various channels, the report finds, including the Microsoft Audience Network and Google Video Partners. Vendors touting advanced capabilities like AI-driven targeting or access to specialized datasets are contributing to the persistent placement of ads on MFA sites, the research indicates.

And while previous studies, including the ANA’s, have largely focused on programmatic transactions, Adalytics found that a surprising amount of ad delivery on MFA sites is not coming via programmatic buys but through retail media networks. Among the worst culprits, per the report, is Amazon. Brands including Hershey's, Bayer, Procter & Gamble, S. C. Johnson & Son, Unilever, Reckitt, Nestle, Clorox, Colgate, Google, Georgia-Pacific, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Mars, Smuckers and General Mills were observed advertising on MFA sites via retail media networks such as Amazon’s.

In response to the report, Amazon has not denied that it may sometimes transact on MFA sites, but insists it keeps “a high bar“ for ad placements.

A company spokesperson tells The Drum: “Amazon DSP is a service that enables advertisers to reach customers across Amazon’s shopping and streaming properties, as well as via direct access to premium apps, websites, and services through Amazon Publisher Direct. It also makes it easy for advertisers to access third-party exchanges that serve ads across the open web. We maintain a high bar on the supply that is available for our advertisers and proactively block made-for-advertising inventory available through a combination of manual and automated processes. We also enable advertisers to decide where their ads appear through a mix of proprietary and third-party controls.“

Most of the implicated companies – across SSPs, DSPs, retail media networks and advertising agencies and holding companies – had commitments in place to either cut back on or eliminate MFA transactions.

The report also spotlighted instances of significant ad waste due to poor frequency capping, which Franaszek says “just doesn't seem to work on MFA sites.” Adalytics observed instances in which brands served hundreds or thousands of impressions to just one person. In one such case, H&R Block served 2,117 impressions to a single person in the span of a half-hour.

“These MFA sites, they’re refreshing ad slots, they’re launching thousands of bid requests to the DSPs. And it seems to be that the DSPs are either not setting frequency caps or are not able to implement them specifically on MFA sites,” Franaszek says.

The consequences of these shortcomings in the system are devastating for advertisers, he explains. “Brands are spending a huge amount of money, relatively speaking, reaching one person. They think they’re getting 1,000 people, [when in reality] they’re getting one person 1,000 times. It turns out, MFA inventory isn’t actually cheap. It’s only cheaper per impression. It’s incredibly expensive on a per-incremental user reach. If your goal is to reach as many American households as possible, MFA is probably more expensive than running ads on the Super Bowl halftime show.”

For brands looking to mitigate their exposure to MFA sites, Franaszek offers a few pieces of advice.

First of all, he says it’s crucial to get into the numbers to assess current exposure and risk. “Get access to your data. Get access to your [ad placement data] and ideally your log file data, and review it internally.”

Franaszek also takes a page out of the ANA’s own playbook. “The ANA itself said in their study that they recommend that brands ‘lean in.’ They said, ‘Don’t rely just on your vendors; don’t rely on your agencies – you’ve got to take ownership and steward your media investment.’ And based on the data I’m seeing in this study, that recommendation is even more apt than it was a year ago.”

This point is even more important considering that some vendors, despite making promises to block MFA sites, appear to be still transacting in these environments. “Brands have to be discerning,” Franaszek says, “because not everyone who makes those statements may necessarily be fully executing on them.”

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It’s not the first time that Adalytics has rocked the industry with damning allegations. An August report from the company found Google-owned YouTube serving ads on content intended for children that could result in online tracking – a finding that added fuel to an already fiery debate surrounding children’s data privacy. The report came less than two months after another Adalytics report that raised major concerns about Google’s online video advertising practices and the quality of its media.

This new report comes as concern about the risks of MFA media comes to a head in the advertising industry. In September, a coalition of industry trade bodies came together to establish new parameters for defining MFA sites. In the last two weeks alone, vendors DoubleVerify and IAS have debuted new tools designed to help reduce brand exposure to MFA sites.

Adalytics’ new report paints a stark picture of the industry’s ongoing battle to combat MFA site infiltrations, indicating a pressing need for comprehensive industry collaboration and reform.

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