Ad misplacement exposes flaws in buying processes

It’s been a troubled month for online advertising. Reports ahead of a BBC Panorama investigation into cyber-bullying revealed that ads from brands including eBay and easyCar have been appearing on websites featuring violent user-generated content. The brands have reacted with concern, stressing that the ad placements were not of their choosing, and placing the blame on their advertising and affiliate networks.

This is not, however, a new problem. In 2005, an ad for Apple appeared on an illegal music download site and, in the resulting furore, a number of UK ad networks set up a trade body, IASH, to try to clean up the sector’s reputation.

Most people put the blame for this kind of mistargeting of ads on what is known as “blind buying”. Advertising networks take inventory from Web publishers, aggregate it and sell it on to advertisers, who will give guidelines about the sort of sites they do and don’t want their ads to appear. Obviously problems can creep in due to human error or misbehaviour by a network, and much of IASH’s early work has focused in these areas.

But the real difficulties arise when networks buy blind from each other. This makes it far harder to control where ads appear and risks the possible brand damage now being experienced by eBay and easyCar. Last year McDonald’s hit the headlines when its ads accidentally appeared on Bebo, a social networking site popular with under-16s. At the time it was just an embarrassment for the brand, but if that happened now it would be a breach of the new Advertising Standards Authority CAP code.

Having touted the internet as the most accountable medium for so long, it’s hardly surprising that lapses such as these should make the news. But it’s also a reflection of the sheer complexity of the sector. There are millions of websites, hundreds of thousands of which are offering advertising inventory. It’s all but impossible to manage that manually, and the tools to help do so are still in their infancy. IASH has enlisted the help of ABC to audit its members, but in the words of Khalil Ibrahimi, the organisation’s head, measurement is “only one click deep”.

One solution is still greater use of technology. Both the IAB and IASH are looking forward to more powerful tracking tools that will show advertisers and networks where ads have run. Such technology is implicit in the promise of online advertising, where the real value is delivered by more and more accurate targeting based on information supplied by the user or gathered by tracking user behaviour.

But change will also come through greater understanding of the problem and stricter oversight. To what extent this is forced on marketers by their procurement departments remains to be seen, but they will still need to add network buying practice to their list of questions when recruiting agencies and ad networks.

Michael Nutley, editor in chief, NMA

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