Take it on the chin, then change

Panorama exposed some major holes in selling online advertising. Brands and agencies should regard this as a wake-up call in best practice, says Guy Phillipson

It’s rare for a peak-time television show to pan its camera on internet advertising. Yet earlier this week, as part of a wider investigation into cyber bullying, the BBC’s Panorama stumbled upon a practice that sent shivers down the spine of not only respectable online advertising sales houses and networks, but also media agencies and advertisers.

On a rather ugly website called PSfights.com Panorama found bluechip brands unknowingly running banner ads alongside videos of “happy slapping” and equally inappropriate material. The brands in question and their agencies moved lightning fast to pull the ads, and various enquiries and investigations were launched to find out how and why such an error occurred.

The main reason is the sheer size of the Web. Online’s not only a massive medium in terms of advertising spend, but also in its incredible reach. Even if a new digital TV channel launched every hour, there would still be nowhere near enough programmes to rival the billions of pages that make up the World Wide Web.

Most advertisers allocate the majority of their online budgets to big portals and major publishers, or highly targeted specialist sites and communities. However, more than 20% of online display advertising in the UK goes through sales houses – or networks – that represent thousands of smaller websites.

There are many advantages to the network buy – it’s great for vertical and behavioural targeting and the cost per thousands (CPM) can be cheap and efficient. In turn, that means conversions (CPA) can look very attractive. I’ve heard one agency describe this as “candy for direct-response advertisers”, and why not if media agencies are often judged on too-tight CPA targets?However, there is a major risk from “chain-buying inventory”, which involves inventory being sold from one network to another with no robust checks or quality control. Even reputable media agencies and sales houses risk exposing their clients to sites featuring dubious content. That’s what Panorama uncovered and this is precisely why IASH – the sales house council of the IAB – was formed, to ensure stringent self-regulation and transparency.

Member networks commit to a code of conduct that includes vetting all inventory and classifying it into the categories of “standard IASH” (completely safe for all brands) and “optional IASH” (lads’ mags online, for instance). “Barred inventory” – which includes sites that feature indecent, obscene or hate content in any form – is banned from IASH and should never be traded.

The internet is clearly not the Wild West it was five years ago, but this incident, while regrettable, can only help the industry tighten up its self-regulation and reinforce the point to advertisers that they need to be as vigilant with their brands online as they would in any other medium.

Agencies need to take their gatekeeper role a stage further, to make clients aware of the risks and ensure the networks they use are not practising blind chain-buying. There are five simple steps all marketers should heed to avoid brands appearing where they shouldn’t: agree a policy on network buys with your media agency and be realistic about CPA targets; avoid chain-buying – the practice of one network buying “blind” from another to fulfil an order; agencies should tighten up service agreements and ensure they know exactly what they are buying; avoid “IP targeting” like the plague (where a network targets a UK audience through international – usually US – websites. Dodgy websites easily slip through quality control with IP targeting); and finally, trade through IASH-compliant member networks. Each has signed up to a code of conduct and is regularly audited to ensure trading is transparent.

The 13 current IASH member sales houses are now being audited. Once complete, the audit will represent a giant leap forward in reinforcing the integrity of online. However, there are some 40 sales networks operating in the UK, and while the IAB advises advertisers to trade through IASH, this may not be practical for every campaign.

So while the easiest (and cheapest) option may prove attractive, ask yourself what dangers you are exposing your brand to. Marketers who act responsibly and work with companies that believe in self-regulation will enjoy the tangible benefits of online advertising and avoid the headaches.

Guy Phillipson is chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau

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