The MFA uproar puts curation of programmatic advertising in the spotlight

2023 was meant to be the year of “curation” — at least it was for a subset of the ad industry. They predicted this would be the beginning of the end of the industry’s infatuation with cheap reach. It turned out it wasn’t.

Then the furore over made-for-advertising sites happened.

“We’re having more conversations with marketers and the agencies they employ about curation,” said Chris Kane, founder of programmatic consultancy Jounce Media. “It’s hard to know whether or not this interest is a flash in the pan but it’s definitely picked up in recent weeks.”

Actually, it’s more a matter of months. The MFA panic ignited back in June, triggered by a cross-industry revelation of the staggering sums channeled into these sites. The truth was laid bare — platforms crafted with the sole purpose of siphoning ad dollars from legitimate publishers for years. This triggered marketer uproar and caught the attention of service providers. 

Indeed, every crisis births opportunity.

And it certainly did for GroupM. 

The biggest media buyer globally has recently taken steps to fortify its existing defenses against MFAs, and partnered with Jounce to do so. Moving forward, the programmatic specialist will evaluate GroupM’s inclusion lists — i.e those curated sites that it deems safe, acceptable and trustworthy places for ads. 

Further information on these efforts can be found here, and it’s likely that more developments will follow. 

In fact, those developments are inevitable, driven by marketers’ desire. Or rather, by what they say they desire. It’s the least they can do given their thirst for cheap ads all but willed MFAs into existence. With this open secret now under widespread discussion, they can’t afford to appear passive on the issue. So, while GroupM is the first to trumpet new MFA safeguards, it likely won’t be the last to do so. The demand for such protections is now substantial (though it might be transient).

Agencies, it appears, are more than willing to accommodate — as they have been doing so for several years. 

During this time, most — if not all — the big media agency networks have built tools and teams to weed out all forms of waste, not just MFAs, from programmatic marketplaces. 

But those efforts only gained traction up to a point — when ad prices rose and video completion rates dove, for instance. Then those dollars would revert to places where the reach is cheap (and performative) — coincidentally where MFAs are rife. 

For a time, this behavior went largely uncriticized. Marketers, in particular, took little notice, as acknowledging MFAs would mean conceding that a notable portion of their programmatic campaigns were built on sand. And if they chose to overlook the issue of MFAs, it was only natural that agency execs would follow suit. After all, they have targets to hit — targets that ad tech vendors are more than willing to support. 

The MFA kerfuffle has turned all that on its head. 

“We’ve raised the issue of MFAs with a lot of our clients in the past but it failed to get much traction until the ANA report,” said Tom Grant, svp group director of investment operations at Havas Media Group. “The investigation has helped validate some of the work we were already doing and more importantly given us client buy-in to do more.” 

The “more” he’s referring to is through something called a curated marketplace. 

Picture it like a series of mini marketplaces shaped by the agency’s own philosophical take on what quality inventory is — underpinned by the data they have access to and the outcomes they’re trying to achieve for clients. It’s a lot smaller than a typical large scale private marketplace, which should mean there’s less bad inventory like MFAs for an advertiser to inadvertently buy. 

“We felt that the incentives weren’t there on the supply side to really help us curate the market as aggressively as we wanted so we decided to take the lead and were able to build our own curated marketplace of the top 300 publishers, representing around 10,000 domains,” said Grant. 

And lo and behold, it’s been effective. Contrary to conventional wisdom, buying from these marketplaces hasn’t forced advertisers to inflate their budgets. On the contrary, these curated marketplaces arguably made programmatic advertising more cost effective for them. 

“Overall, the cost hasn’t really increased much for our clients,” said Grant. “When we do a deal with a specific publisher for our curated PMP they’re able to see our spending in a more transparent way so we’re able to  negotiate much better pricing with them and subsequently remove a lot of supply chain costs to get the wider campaign costs down.”

While Grant mentioned CTV, the rationale applies equally to Havas’ other curated marketplaces. Grant elaborated: “We haven’t seen costs rise by any more than say five to 10%. That can be said largely about everything we buy.”

Curation at this scale isn’t something every agency can pull off. It comes with its own set of prerequisites, and they all revolve around two key elements. 

The first is the agency’s clout to secure the necessary discounts that make buying vast volumes of quality impressions more affordable. The second element pertains to the agency’s ability to gather data, especially now that so much of it has been throttled thanks to a crackdown on the cookies and mobile identifiers that made it all so widely available. 

“There’s value in curation across publishers not just in a one to one fashion but also a one to many way, which we would call an auction package,” said Ryan Eusanio, managing director of digital activation at Omnicom Media Group. “This is what we’ve been doing for several years now: we’re taking a single supplier’s total system traffic and shaping that down to quality sellers.” 

Omnicom was one of a few outliers back then. At the time, curation like this was primarily done by SSPs, who used it to determine which DSPs should receive a particular bid request. And they did it to tackle a pervasive issue that affects all aspects of the programmatic ecosystem: noise. In simple terms, “noise” is the requests that are sent out by a SSP but go unanswered or are wasted, leading to bottlenecks and thinner margins for both the SSP and the DSP that received those requests. Over time, agencies have done something similar. They’ve repurposed the approach to filter out wastage, not noise, from the marketplaces they buy from.

“We do this because, even though we’re still putting in place the architecture to be able to quantify the value [of curation] back to clients, there’s a business imperative (better ROI) and a moral one to be as responsible as we can be when buying ads on behalf of our clients,” said Eusanio. 

Which is to say weeding out MFAs, or any other form of wastage from programmatic marketplaces for that matter, is tough. Inclusion lists can only do so much. Not least because MFAs can easily slip onto them if marketers aren’t careful. This happens when marketers use the wrong metrics like completion rates, CPMs and viewability, resulting in their ads being bought in places that are seemingly acceptable, but are in reality, far from satisfactory. 

It’s why execs at Omnicom Media Group manage those lists themselves in tandem with signals like ads.cert, supply chain object, sellers,json and more to curate their buys away from the reseller inventory that tends to be more prone to things like MFAs and unnecessary ad tech costs. 

The same goes for programmatic buying outfit MiQ. Over the last year and a half, it’s been using similar data to block programmatic marketplaces that sell dodgy inventory including MFAs. 

As its global head of product Lara Koenig, explained: “It’s a trust but verify exercise, whereby we check our ad tech partners are working with the resellers they say they are before blocking our eight demand-side platform from buying from any of those intermediaries that we deem to sell things like MFAs.”

Get this curation wrong and it could backfire for agency execs. They could curate the wrong data in the wrong ways for the wrong outcomes, and actually do a disservice to their clients. When done correctly, though, this sort of curation lets agencies focus their ad dollars on media owners that provide the most value for their clients i.e not MFAs. They’re not the only things marketers should be mindful of course. Ad spoofing, domain spoofing, non-human traffic, invalid traffic and click fraud still persist. Nonetheless, MFAs currently take center stage as the main concern among programmatic advertisers. 

For many of them, what’s old is new again.

“The investment leaders at the holding companies believe in this approach to curation but it hasn’t quite influenced buying behaviors at large,” said MiQ’s Koenig. “What needs to happen is the strategic thinking [around curation] to turn into execution so that ad tech vendors start to take note and publishers see that reflected in the dollars they earn.”

When this happens remains anyone’s guess. Marketers can still opt to overlook these concerns but the cost of doing so is steadily increasing. 

“The best agencies, the best solutions are able to figure out how to manage the programmatic landscape because media buying in this day and age isn’t about putting all your targeting parameters into a DSP and hitting play,” said Drew Stein, CEO at Audigent, the company that built a curated marketplace for the direct response advertisers of agency Quigley. “Rather, it’s about how we think more carefully about where the ads we buy on behalf of our clients show up online.”

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