‘MFA should stand for made-for-arbitrage’: An oral history of the murky made-for-advertising crusade

Love them, hate them or tolerate them, “made-for-advertising” sites have had targets on their backs since the early summer, causing media buyers, advertisers and SSPs to make sweeping proclamations that they were blocking any and all MFAs from their programmatic ad buys.

But between the confusing nature of the term “made-for-advertising” and the fact that there is not a universally shared set of definitive parameters amongst industry stakeholders for identifying MFAs, the MFA crackdown started resembling more of a witch hunt.

As a result, independent- and diverse-owned publishers, local media sites and even some mid-sized outlets became collateral damage, cut from buyers’ inclusion lists that were created with their individual classifications and thresholds for what constitutes an MFA site.

Last fall, a loose definition that included some criteria for identifying MFA sites was created by a group of trade organizations. It was intended for the definition to be open to interpretation as a way to give buyers flexibility to determine their level of tolerance for things like paid traffic, according to the involved organizations: the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA).  

Word on the street is that working groups are still developing standards for how MFAs are classified. Although the two buyers who spoke to Digiday about their involvement in the working groups could not share a definitive timeline for when a set definition will be unveiled, recent conversations have revolved around advocating for reclassification of MFA to mean “made-for-arbitrage” — not advertising — to quell some publisher concerns and get everyone on the same page. 

Here is the story of how the efforts to reduce the amount of ad dollars allocated to low quality ad inventory evolved into a witch hunt that ultimately impacted earnest publishers in an already troubled market.

Good intentions

The ANA’s report published last June didn’t reveal a brand new, nefarious type of publisher, but it did uncover just how much money was being allocated to MFA sites from advertisers’ total marketing spend and how little return on investment those dollars were getting as MFA sites by and large only deliver weak campaign KPIs like viewability or click-through rates.

In the ANA’s report from last June that examined the proportion of programmatic ad dollars being allocated to MFAs, the results showed that 21% of the collective 35 billion impressions from 21 advertisers’ campaigns came from MFAs.

Scott Pierce, head of fraud protection at Integral Ad Science: “MFA aren’t fraudulent sites. The reason my team built a solution to ID MFAs is that they aren’t fraudulent, but they do want to go undetected and they definitely know how to game the system.” 

Ashwini Karandikar, evp of media, technology and data at the 4A’s: “Made-for-arbitrage are websites that offer no value to consumers and are created for the sole purpose of arbitraging media.”

There are other benefits to media buyers cutting out MFAs, beyond theoretically regaining 20 or so percent of their ad budgets to spend on “higher quality” ads. By eliminating MFA sites, advertisers can also reduce their carbon footprints because the ad selling practices of MFAs notoriously emitted more carbon emissions than other publishers.

Chris Kane, founder Jounce Media: “The problem is highly concentrated with like a handful of these companies … [that contribute] something on the order of like half of the industry’s carbon emissions. A crazy amount of auctions that come from a small number of publishers that operate really low quality [ad inventory] that most brands and agencies don’t want to buy in the first place.” 

A loose definition 

The definition put forth by the trade organizations last fall included a set of shared characteristics among known MFA sites that were supposed to assist buyers in determining if a site is or is not made-for-ad arbitrage. But without specific benchmarks or thresholds to measure against, the pool of MFA sites deepened and spilled beyond the intended parameters.

Karandikar: “The reason we purposely kept it at a high level is… there’s a lot of local media that sometimes the local buyer is asking for additional supply and so the local seller probably has to create additional supply. We don’t want to penalize [local publishers because] of that, but the point being that the buyer [should] be aware of what the supply is, what the source is and see the value of the supply.”

A media buyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity: “The industry as a whole does not have a definition for MFA. We all kind of think we know what some of the things are that we would look for, but there’s no centralized list. We all want clean, well lit areas for our clients’ ads to run in so we’re not we’re not saying that it’s all bad or it’s all good [but] we need to pump the brakes and better define what we’re actually talking about here.”

Consultancies like Jounce Media and Deepsee.io created their own proprietary methodologies that largely focused on whether a site practiced ad arbitrage. Verification firms like DoubleVerify wanted to still give buyers the ability to assess how many characteristics of MFA sites they were OK with for their clients’ campaigns and thus created a tiered system for MFA evaluation. This week, IAS announced a new MFA detection tool that would help take out the guesswork for buyers.

Kane: “Made-for-advertising, to my mind, has a very narrow definition. It’s a big chunk of the bidstream but it’s a very narrowly defined thing. The most important thing — I’m not sure DoubleVerify agrees on this — is [MFAs are] publishers that are in the business of ad arbitrage. They buy traffic, they monetize the pageviews, they keep the spread on revenue … But that doesn’t mean that everything that’s not MFA is high quality.”

Jack Smith, global chief innovation officer at DoubleVerify: “[DoubleVerify’s] goal was to allow [for a] better level of transparency and ultimately choice on the advertiser’s side to say, ‘This is what I define as MFA,’ and allow them to implement it that way, or at least understand how it’s working.”

Collateral damage

A side effect of the MFA crackdown is that publishers who are trying to operate a legitimate journalism business but need to monetize their content are put in a position of potentially being labeled as an MFA, despite not existing solely for gaming programmatic advertising. This has become an issue specifically for Black-owned media companies in recent months.

Leah Askew, svp and head of precision media at Digitas North America: “Some of the DE&I publishers, in order to grow, have had to use more ad units on the site or rely on paid traffic, and we don’t want them to get cut out [of our programmatic media buys.”

The anonymous media buyer: “The term MFA is problematic and any sort of master inclusion or exclusion list that exists … is incredibly problematic because it’s going to, without fail, lump in sites that don’t look as pretty and might have different types of ads on them, which is going to further marginalize small businesses, local journalism, diverse-owned and basically any business that’s trying to grow.” 

Smith: “The frustration on the publishers’ side was that most companies are approaching it as a very black and white thing and there wasn’t a lot of understanding of what was going into that classification [of MFA].” 

Kane: “The big picture for this year is publishers demanding more clarity into whether and why they’re being blocked … Real media companies flip out when they hear they’ve been marked as made-for-advertising. They similarly flip out when they’re being blocked for brand safety or a variety of other issues. And they deserve clarity into how the buy-side is making these sorts of decisions.”

It should be ‘made-for-arbitrage’

The fix for these resulting issues comes down to creating a firmer definition/set of guidelines for identifying MFA inventory in the market, according to several media buyers. 

But the first step is to make the “A” in MFA stand for arbitrage. 

Rory Latham, senior director of global investment and programmatic at GroupM: “It’s very easy because that’s the same acronym. But it is just a case of when trying to clarify exactly the sorts of content we’re trying to remove. I think the term ‘made-for-advertising’ can sometimes paint a slightly confusing picture and so made-for-arbitrage is a lot clearer on the kind of content that we’re trying to block or trying to remove from the ecosystem. And so we use that [term] whether we’re having internal discussions, discussions with clients … Yes, the industry is typically calling this made-for-advertising, [but] an easier way to think about it is to look at it as made-for-arbitrage.’” 

Pierce: “MFA is fairly binary. Either a site is conducting ad arbitrage or it’s not … We really believe that MFA should stand for made-for-arbitrage.”

Karandikar: “We are specifically calling it made-for-arbitrage [within the 4A’s] and the reason we’re calling it that … is everything that otherwise is created [on the internet and monetized through advertising] is made-for-advertising. You’re hoping to reach your consumers or customers, sell products, promote topics, whatever it is that you want to do. And so by calling it made-for-advertising, it is confusing.” 

Not everyone is convinced the change in terminology is possible at this point, however. 

Kane: “There was a moment where industry [trade organizations] were toying with saying, ‘We really need to call this made-for-arbitrage,’ and that never happened. It’s made-for-advertising. The ship has sailed.” 

Bill Duggan, group evp at ANA: “The New York Times is made for advertising, right? But at this point, the toothpaste is out of the tube and [made-for-advertising is the] term everybody uses.”


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