The Past, Present and Future of Ad Quality

If there’s one truism about technology businesses, it is that when you lose sight of the consumer experience, you’re dead. Digital advertising is veering dangerously in this direction. Digital advertising is the Internet’s economic engine. Everything from Google to Facebook to your favorite news site relies on advertising to pay the bills. In the old days, these ads were bought and sold by hand. Large publisher sales forces called on agencies to sell their inventory. Publishers could carefully, and explicitly, manage the tradeoff between the attention-grabbing qualities advertisers value and the focused, uncluttered environment that users desire (and an experience that drives engagement).

In recent years programmatic advertising has emerged as the industry’s dominant monetization paradigm. With sophisticated algorithms and hyper-focused targeting, programmatic buying automates the ad sale transaction with an unprecedented level of efficiency and control. While this appears to be a marketer’s dream, the unintended consequence is that publishers are no longer in control of the advertisements being served onto their sites. In fact, they are often blind to the quality of ads served to their audience. As a result, publishers are losing control over their own user experiences.

So what’s the problem?

This gap in visibility has created an opportunity for low quality, disruptive and even dangerous ads to enter the ecosystem. Think about ads that auto-play with audio, take too long to load, inject malware or contain offensive content. Ad-induced latency slows down user’s favorite websites and ruin their online experience. Unsecured user syncs and JavaScript calls create privacy concerns. Malware freaks them out. Users are frustrated. So frustrated in fact, they are starting to revolt, putting the entire digital advertising industry at risk. You only have to look at the rapid spread of ad blocking software to see the threat.

As a long time publisher, I can tell you: achieving the balance between attracting eyeballs, driving sales and building loyal communities is the holy grail. Right now the balance is out of whack and users are suffering. Publishers need ways to take back control of their own digital product experience. They need transparent but efficient ways to monitor the programmatic ads being served into their pages and to monitor the quality, performance and safety of ads from the demand partners they do business with.

It’s only going to get more complicated from here. Over the next few years, we’ll see increased adoption of programmatic video, header bidding and identity targeting, each bringing new risks when it comes to ad quality, latency and privacy concerns.

What’s the solution?

There’s no simple fix that will solve all these problems. But there are some steps the industry can take that would help:

  1. Support the rapid adoption of HTTP/2 which was designed to increase speed and improve website data security.
  2. Replace the wild proliferation of client-side user cookies with a consortium-operated sync service and marketplace of tracking data.
  3. Agree on a universal ID methodology for managing creative across the entire value chain, from the agency to the publisher, that can be used for ad quality scoring, and deduplication, and removal.

My new company, Ad Lightning, is aimed at helping publishers monitor and manage ad quality and latency with their demand partners. But monitoring and managing is only one part of the equation. We’re excited to be part of a solution that re-prioritizes the user experience. But we need to see industry-wide leadership and cooperation.

The digital ad industry as a whole, including advertisers, agencies, DSP’s and exchanges needs to clean up its act before it’s too late.