There is a new definition for MFAs, but it’s meant to be open to interpretation

A new definition for made-for-advertising sites has officially been released by a group of trade organizations. 

For months, the term made-for-advertising (MFA) has been ricocheting throughout the media and advertising industries, getting buyers up in arms about cheap ad inventory that doesn’t deliver much in the way of a return on investment. But people realized that the term existed without a standardized definition, causing confusion. 

Earlier this summer, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) — whose Programmatic Media Supply Chain Transparency Study published in June ignited the MFA witch hunt — took it upon themselves to work with other trade organizations to figure out exactly which characteristics constitutes MFA. And as of last week, the ANA has a definition, after working alongside the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA). 

According to the press release from the trade groups, “MFA sites usually exhibit some combination of the following characteristics”: 

  1. A high ad-to-content ratio of 30% or higher on desktop
  2. Rapidly auto-refreshing ad placements, including many banner ads, autoplay videos and slideshows that force users to click through multiple pages to access content, which have multiple ads  
  3. High percentage of paid traffic sourcing
  4. Generic content that is syndicated across many sites, is out-of-date and is templated or non-editorial in nature
  5. The website itself is poorly designed or uses a template

High-level definition 

The definition is meant to be somewhat open to interpretation, and while Bill Duggan, group evp at ANA, was hesitant to declare that a specific number of the five characteristics criteria must be hit in order for a publisher to be deemed as an MFA, he said “certainly at least three of them.” 

“We have now defined it and we see this as the starting point of any negotiation or conversation, not the end point,” said Ashwini Karandikar, the 4A’s evp of media, technology and data. “The hope is that we work with the supply side to create guidance around what good media looks like, because the truth is that the advertiser and agencies need good supply and ethical journalism. This is a symbiotic relationship.” 

Jack Smith, chief product officer at verification firm DoubleVerify, is not convinced that the loose definition of MFA will lead to such unified results, however. 

“The ANA stopped short of creating a standard, and I think without a standard, it’s very difficult to [compare and contrast MFA lists with other companies evaluating these sites],” said Smith, whose company announced in September that it would issue protections against MFA sites for its clients. And without the standard, he added it’s more important for the advertisers or agencies themselves to determine thresholds for the criteria than it is for the verification firms and measurement companies to do so. 

Both programmatic supply chain management company Jounce Media’s founder Chris Kane and Rocky Moss, co-founder and CEO of ad fraud detection company, were consultants for the trade organizations as they worked to create a definition for MFAs, and both Kane and Moss say they back the standard definition. The trade groups did not pay Jounce Media or for their consultation, according to Duggan, but they were used as subject matter experts because both have been individually working to define MFAs and measure them within their businesses for years prior to the ANA’s report in June which set MFAs ablaze. 

Kane said that the new definition is “totally consistent” with Jounce’s current approach to defining MFAs, despite the trade group’s definition not including the criteria that “ads are at least 50% less likely to drive sales for marketers or be attributed with driving a sale for marketers than the average website,” which is what Jounce uses as a metric for determining MFAs. 

Moss said that it’s a similar signal set to the one his team uses as well. And while the trade organizations’ definition may seem less black-and-white than what one would expect from a set of guidelines that is meant to be universally adopted, Moss said that was by design. 

“It’s not a hard and fast definition because really, what we’re talking about, is a collection of different behaviors that are all swirling around wasteful spending. What we’ve provided are signals that people can now preemptively scan so they don’t end up in the position of being caught unaware. Whoever is deciding to use these signals may have different thresholds or cut offs around what they’re comfortable with, but at least no one can say I didn’t know what to look for,” said Moss. “It’s good enough that we’re all speaking a common language.”

Duggan said the goal is to have everyone adopt this new definition in order to be on the same page when it comes to identifying MFA sites. “I’ve gotten questions from members [asking] what’s ANA’s definition for made-for-advertising? I think it’s a better answer now to say … this is a definition that’s not only ANA-supported, but your ad agency should as well, because it has the 4A’s endorsement,” said Duggan. 

According to Karandikar, the reason for keeping the definition purposefully high-level was to not penalize local, independently-owned or minority-operated media companies right off the bat who may be guilty of creating additional supply for large campaign deals that they sell. 

“This is not necessarily giving the smaller publishers a free ticket to say, you can keep creating arbitrage. Instead, this is an opportunity for them to demonstrate how the supply is sourced,” Karandikar said, which wasn’t a dialogue that was previously had between buyers and sellers. 

Before this definition was announced last week, however, many of the more proactive SSPs, holding companies, agencies and even verification firms had been using Jounce Media’s definition or’s MFA list in the intermediate to assess whether or not publishers are MFA. 

When asked if GroupM, which announced it was removing MFAs from its programmatic inclusion lists in August, is planning to adopt the new standard definition within its programmatic business, a spokesperson did not answer the question directly and instead provided an emailed statement: “We’re encouraged to see the industry coming together to standardize a definition for MFAs that will help everyone work better together to combat them.”

“Jounce’s strategy definition isn’t all that different from the group’s definition, so if GroupM is using something from Jounce, that’s a great start, I would just suggest, let’s everybody look at this slightly updated definition [from the guidelines Jounce had been using and] make sure that we’re all on the same page,” said Duggan. He did not specify what the “slight updates” were. 

Jounce, DeepSee, DoubleVerify and all of the other companies to come that will identify MFA sites are going to have different tests for identifying generic content or templated website designs, Kane continued, and that’s important because data diversity will help to ensure that the definition works.

“Each company will interpret these things differently, but … even if the methodologies are different, if we can all agree on the five hallmarks of MFA supply and then we can compare the final outputs, [the hope is that the final lists of MFA sites look similar, if not identical],” said Kane. 

Ongoing education

Later this month, the ANA is planning to release a follow-up report to its one from June, that will include the new MFA definition as well as provide more data and insights around the role of MFAs in the industry, with the goal being to further educate advertisers on this topic. 

The early results of an ongoing survey of ANA members — which will be published in the upcoming report — revealed that about one-third of respondents are still unaware of what MFA sites are, said Duggan, meaning that there is still a lot of education that needs to take place among advertisers. 

One common critique amongst many advertisers and publishers regarding the term “made-for-advertising” is that most modern digital media sites are monetized via ad revenue and therefore are made to support advertising, which causes a degree of confusion when discussing this topic. 

Noting that, Karandikar said her team likes to think of MFA standing for made-for-arbitrage to differentiate sites that are monetized with healthy ad revenue from the sites that are specifically trying to take advantage of the programmatic advertising market. 

Whether or not that differentiation will pick up any real steam is to be determined, however. 

“The New York Times is made-for-advertising,” Duggan concurred, “but at this point, the toothpaste is out of the tube and everybody uses [made-for-advertising].”

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