Brand Safety Tech Bytes with Robert McNair, Director & Brand Safety Czar at DashBid

(As posted on MarTechSeries TechBytes)

Earlier this year, DashBid, an SSP (Supply-Side Platform) and programmatic ad exchange, appointed Robert McNair as the Brand Safety Czar. The new position at DashBid was created to drive the company’s agenda of delivering a brand-safe and fraud-free programmatic ecosystem. We interviewed Robert at TechBytes Series to understand how the programmatic market is evolving to tackle the inherent challenges arising from Ad Fraud in the ecosystem.

MTS: What does being Brand Safety Director at DashBid entail? How did you arrive at this position?

Robert McNair (Robert): DashBid has always been focused on brand safety and has a long history of delivering solutions that improve ad quality. My appointment as Brand Safety Director was built on top of our existing brand safety initiatives. We wanted to take a proactive approach to improving quality and transparency in the programmatic ecosystem.

My job as Brand Safety Director is to oversee and lead our Brand Safety Team. I work directly with clients and publishers to analyze brand risk and review inventory to remove environments that are unsafe.

MTS: How does Dashbid connect advertisers and media publishing agencies to their audience? Please explain the objective of defining an Engagement Spectrum within programmatic.

Robert: DashBid connects advertisers to their audience through the DashBid Exchange (DBeX), which is powered by the DBeX Engagement Spectrum. The DBeX Engagement Spectrum allows advertisers to buy against engagement metrics such as length of video view, AVOC, social shares, and other key measures of engagement.

While we agree with Marc Pritchard’s call to hold digital advertising accountable and enforce strong viewability standards, viewability alone isn’t enough. Two seconds of viewability is how long it takes for someone to find the close button on an ad. Measuring viewability demonstrates an ad was shown, but it does not show that it mattered. The ultimate goal of advertising is to reach the consumer and get them to take an action such as buy a product or visit a website. The objective of the Engagement Spectrum is to redefine programmatic KPIs and start mapping standards to ROI and not just viewable impressions.

MTS: Help our readers understand the evolution of programmatic advertising?

Robert: Programmatic was intended to centralize inventory, reduce costs, introduce automation, and improve targeting. If you wanted to target females in the  20-35 age group, you would go to an ad network to buy your audience across numerous different publications all at once. The intent of programmatic was to simplify and centralize the digital ad buying process. What happened was the technology built to simplify the buying process actually added complexity and murkiness, allowing fraud to thrive.

As a result, advertisers are rightfully demanding greater transparency and publishers are left with the insurmountable task of multi-party data vendor management in order to deliver audiences to advertisers.

MTS: According to recent news, JPMorgan Chase began limiting its display ads to pre-approved websites to avoid proximity to content like fake news and offensive video? If that’s true—how do you see programmatic advertising platforms adopting themselves to offer a brand safe ecosystem to customers?

Robert: The scenario JPMorgan presented isn’t a feasible or scalable solution. Our CEO, Rodger Wells, wrote a great article about that recently.  “The scenario that JPMorgan Chase presented only works when you are the only company moving to a restricted site list,” Wells said.

However, what happens when other brands follow suit and put their ad dollars towards the same 5,000 sites? The result is driving CPMs up, as the number of available impressions is limited. Ultimately the price of inventory gets so high that the ROI is near zero.

There is definitely a problem with quality and brand safety in the programmatic industry, however, manually checking every site and moving to a very tight restricted list is not the answer. What articles like this do is strike fear. However, sometimes fear is good and I think it gets the message out that the industry needs to find a scalable solution that can satisfactorily deliver real, human, viewable impressions and ROI.

MTS: What are the common challenges that come in the way of programmatic adoption?

Robert: Many publishers are facing the same roadblock right now – the lack of a common currency for inventory validation and measurement. There are numerous third-party vendors that help publishers validate their traffic but different advertisers will rely on different data sets, forcing a publisher to use different vendors for the same service. Publishers looking to adopt programmatic will face integration hurdles including cost and the time needed to connect to various third-party vendors. It’s the double-edged sword of programmatic – the lack of a common solution makes it hard for publishers to sell at scale but without it, advertisers are wary of working with you.

MTS: Please helps us define ad fraud and brand safety in a programmatic marketplace?

Robert: There are various different types of ad fraud and brand safety concerns that occur not only in the programmatic marketplace but in the entire digital landscape. Ad fraud occurs in many categories.

The majority of non-human traffic is used to generate fake impressions and fake clicks through the use of simple and sophisticated bots, or botnets. While sophisticated bots and botnets are harder to detect because they may rotate IP address or use compromised computers, at the end of the day they are non-human and exhibit patterns that make them detectable.

Ad fraud generated by human traffic, however, can be harder to detect because the end users are real, but the impressions and clicks are fraudulent. Human-traffic ad fraud includes ad stacking, cookie stuffing, domain spoofing, ad injections, and site bundling.

DashBid has taken numerous steps in the last 6 months to build a brand safe and fraud-free environment. As the Brand Safety Director, my job is to oversee DashBid’s exchange and identify, assess, and remove any risks and threats.

MTS: Dashbid follows a 3-pronged approach to assessing risks—One of them was through assessing “Campaign Level Threshold. How do you establish brand safety specifications for advertising campaigns?

Robert: We understand every brand and campaign is different. We work directly with the advertiser to understand all their concerns and establish a custom list of rules to make sure all campaigns meet specific brand safety specifications that are designed for that brand. For example, different campaigns may have different viewability thresholds, whitelists, and blacklists. We make sure the brand safety thresholds are designed specifically for that client and stop advertisers from wasting ad spend.

MTS: How do you see bot traffic clashing with programmatic results? Do bots negatively affect the programmatic ROI?

Robert: Definitely. Bot traffic and other types of ad fraud definitely have a tremendous impact on ROI and measurement. If an advertiser spends $1 million dollars on a digital ad campaign but 50% of the impressions are invalid, the advertiser is basically doubling the price. Everything from fraudulent traffic to non-viewable impressions will have a negative impact on ROI, ad spend, and all marketing decisions. It behooves the industry, including ad tech players like DashBid, to create products that focus on improving quality and brand safety.

MTS: What is the correlation between bot traffic and ad fraud metrics?

Robert: While there may be no correlation between bot traffic and traffic volume, there is a direct correlation between bot traffic and ad fraud metrics. One of the measurements of ad fraud is NHT, non-human traffic, and the higher the bot traffic the higher the measure of NHT ad fraud.

MTS: Most programmatic advertising platforms, networks, and exchanges have come together to provide a brand safe environment for advertisers. How do you see such collaborations helping customers? Does it make programmatic adoption easier and scalable?

Robert: I think these initiatives are a great start and a strong statement as ad tech players take ownership of some of the problems afflicting the ad tech industry. However, it doesn’t really address programmatic video since the publishers involved are almost always completely sold out by direct sales.

The emergence of the new Ads.txt initiative from the IAB is a step in the right direction in the fight against fraud. The industry is ripe for change and we all need to adopt practices that bring about more transparency.

MTS: Finally, what according to you is the “Holy Grail” of every programmatic advertising campaign? What would be your advice to CMOs who are planning to invest in programmatic adoption in the near future?

Robert: The holy grail of programmatic advertising is to achieve the promise of advertising, getting an ad in front of a person and making them do something.  Generally speaking, digital has failed at this. My advice to CMOs is to focus on ROI.

MTS: Thank you, Robert, for your insights on brand safety. We look forward to having you again at MTS  soon.