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December 2022 RR blog edit

Publishers are fighting back against programmatic’s parasitic ad tech intermediaries

Published: 05 Dec 2022

In today’s privacy-first digital ecosystem, publishers are seeking more direct relationships with advertisers, other publishers, and their technology partners. This is typically framed as an effort from publishers to rightly maximise the value of their first-party data and bolster their position at the bargaining table. Both are true, of course, but publishers are also taking greater control of the supply chain to prevent their intellectual property from being stolen.

Open programmatic revenue is the lifeblood of much of the industry, but it also carries the risk that ad tech vendors will misuse publisher content and data, damaging their ability to monetise their own properties and honour privacy commitments to their audiences. Currently, vendors of contextual optimisation solutions are the worst offenders – and even more so thanks to the increased focus on contextual as a post-cookie alternative.

Publishers need to work with third-party vendors for a variety of reasons, chief among them being brand safety verification. However, some tech players are inserting tags onto a publisher page for a purpose that has not been agreed with the publisher, allowing them to collect data for purposes outside of the contracted terms and conditions. This includes building contextual advertising segments that end up rivalling publishers’ own ad offerings. This underhand practice involves collecting user data which – although might not necessarily be considered personally identifiable information – tramples on the consent of users who specifically opt out of any of their data being used for advertising purposes.

This puts publishers in the precarious position of unwittingly breaching their user agreements. While the publishers that have the resources to scrutinise their web traffic might detect and act upon suspicious activity, many will be left unaware or simply assume ad tech partners are standing by their agreements. Publishers can, and do, successfully reign-in vendors who are playing fast and loose with their contracts, but the point is they shouldn’t have to in the first place.

We want a digital advertising supply chain that is built on trust. It’s clear, however, that we can’t rely on all players to act in good faith, and with the end user in mind. This is why publishers need to be able to block data scraping on their sites and why, at AOP, we’re working with partners to develop a Bot Register that will force the transparency we’ve been asking for.

There are also various organisations — such as the Ozone Project — that pool resources and expertise to help publishers build tech stacks and form direct partnerships without sacrificing their valuable first-party data and audience insights, or compromising their intellectual property. This is especially valuable for smaller premium publishers that can be more vulnerable to the parasitic behaviour of ad tech opportunists.

The question of who has the right to use a publisher’s content and data, and for what purposes, has to be our next priority. Bad eggs in ad tech will protest but, in the end, for there to be high-quality content to advertise alongside, publishers need revenue to fund the creation of that content. This virtuous cycle breaks down when revenues are funnelled away without permission by intermediaries who collect data they do not have the right to, and who contribute nothing to the creation and monetisation of premium content. This practice is purely extractive and must be stopped.

But, while it’s frustrating that publishers must go to such lengths to protect what is rightfully theirs, there is ample reason to believe our determined efforts to stop this practice will pay off in the long run. A good example of publishers working together to tackle another significant issue can be seen from the initial findings in our upcoming report with ISBA and PwC – a follow-up to the industry-shaking ‘Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study’.

Early observations indicate that end-to-end transparency and publisher revenue share has significantly improved in response to the original audit. The full results are due in the next few months and will be testament to the ongoing and persistent efforts of a joint industry taskforce.

So, great things can happen when publishers unite around an issue and our partners on the ad tech side take it seriously. I am heartened to think that the same will ring true when it comes to dealing with the bad practices of some technology vendors.

Look out for more updates next year as we continue to progress these conversations with the industry and collaborate on solutions for success.

I would also remind our members to take the time to complete our latest publisher survey, which will help ensure we provide the most relevant and insightful support in the year ahead. Responses close 9th January, so don’t miss your chance to contribute.

Wishing everyone a happy and restful Christmas.