Third-party verification is just a first step toward transparency

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To deliver true accountability, ad tech vendors need to do a whole lot more than providing outside confirmation, writes the president of AOL Platforms.

Advertisers want and deserve deeper insight into how agency and technology partners are acting on their behalf. They want to know how their money is being spent. Earlier this year, Procter & Gamble announced it will review all media agency contracts in 2017. The goal: to extract broader transparency and data from what the company has called "murky" agency and publisher relationships.

In response to the demand for greater transparency, technology platforms are increasingly embracing third-party verification, and it is quickly becoming standard protocol in digital advertising. A survey by the Association of National Advertisers revealed that 97 percent of advertisers want independent measurement of their media buys from third-party companies like Moat, DoubleVerify and comScore. Advertisers are now choosing partners based on whether they will allow independent verification. For years, platforms like Facebook and Google have slow-walked these demands. But that is quickly changing after well-publicized ad measurement problems for both. In recent months, Facebook and Google have announced metric audits by the Media Rating Council in an effort to rebuild advertiser trust through outside verified ad measurement.

While third-party verification is hugely valuable, it isn’t enough. Advertising technology vendors need to do more to deliver true accountability.  

Install safeguards. When it comes to brand safety and accountability, being proactive is critical. In facilitating ad transactions and media buys, technology partners need to use tools for quality control and verification, ad screening, whitelists/blocklists, exchange-wide blocking tools, and more. They also need to offer self-serve tools for advertisers who want to take control into their own hands, as well as managed services for larger partners. Installing multiple safeguards to prevent mistakes is critical. These tools must be supported by complementary ad blocking (in something close to real time), as well, should a "bad" ad happen to slip through for any reason, like a mislabeling by an advertiser.

Access to attribution data. More advertisers are relying on third-party data than ever before. Specifically, they want greater insight into attribution and cross-channel/device measurement to understand campaign success. Attribution data access and openness are fundamental in today's landscape. This is why brands are investing more in data collection and analytics. To understand ROI and modify campaigns in real-time, they are eager to have access to more pipes and sources. Beyond working with third-party verification partners to confirm the validity of key metrics and data points, technology partners need to offer advertisers access to this data at a granular level. Doing so creates a feedback loop between advertisers and vendors. It enables greater transparency, as well as campaigns that are more effective from the start, while being easier to improve.

No "walled gardens." Open technology will unlock greater transparency in the advertising ecosystem. According to Gartner, there are more than 2,000 "significant" platforms in the ad tech landscape. Even with consolidation, successful technology services on both the buy and sell side need to be vendor and media-agnostic. They must be designed to be open and flexible—capable of integrating with hundreds of popular third-party services and sources that fit into the larger advertising supply chain. The desire to be a "walled garden" will, of course, continue. But the problem for advertisers is that walled gardens allow their partners to "grade their own homework," often obfuscating ROI and data.

Evaluate inventory. Last year, a wave of endemic bot fraud cheated advertisers of more than $7 billion in ad costs. Similarly, viewability—the degree in which an end-user actually sees an ad—is a growing concern. Google has said that nearly 60 percent of its ads are not seen. And viewability can vary wildly among individual media sellers. So, in order for platforms to determine the validity of their inventory sources, they must check their numbers and verify traffic. Even the highest-traffic outlets should be reviewed, as they can suffer from problems (e.g., "buying" traffic, etc.). Examining inventory will help put the legitimate sources front and center, benefiting advertisers, platforms and publishers alike.

Well-lit programmatic. Programmatic ad tech has quickly become the backbone of internet advertising. According to eMarketer, nearly four of every five digital display dollars will be transacted programmatically this year. For advertisers, automated buys allows for smarter, more efficient data-driven transactions. However, even with its considerable benefits, many advertisers continue to cite transparency challenges across programmatic environments. With programmatic technology so deeply embedded in the ad supply chain, vendors offering solutions need to ensure "well-lit" auctions for their customers. This means delivering greater transparency across the programmatic lifecycle—being upfront about demand sources, fees, CPMs, bids and attribution. As programmatic technology becomes table stakes, vendors can dramatically influence and raise the degree of transparency and accountability across the overall ecosystem.

Third-party verification is essential. However, implementing these additional methods will help deliver true accountability—and establish greater trust amongst partners.

Tim Mahlman is the president of AOL Platforms.