Advertisers’ investigation into murky programmatic chain ready to report after fight for data

One of the most comprehensive independent studies ever undertaken into what really goes on inside the programmatic advertising supply chain is set to be unveiled next month.

The exhaustive study, covering the digital advertising of 15 major advertisers, many of them global, has taken more than a year to complete.

Delegates to the annual conference of the UK’s peak body for brand marketers, ISBA – the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers – heard that the work being carried out by consultancy PwC will lay bare where digital advertising budgets really end up.

The culmination of the project, billed as a world first, comes as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) gears up for its own 18-month investigation into the “murky” digital supply chain.

Publishers have long complained that an unjustifiably large proportion of digital ad dollars disappears during the digital buying process into the pockets of intermediaries. And advertisers have increasingly raised questions about whether media agencies and others involved in  the chain have been fully disclosing how much of the spend has been coming their way.

The ISBA-commissioned study has focused on the so-called “open display” digital advertising market, leaving out the walled-garden environment of Facebook. A dozen large publishers participated in the project under the auspices of the Association of Online Publishers.

ISBA delegates at the London conference were told that the process of accessing the information from the various intermediaries had been anything but straightforward.

Although ISBA director general Phil Smith did not specifically suggest the programmatic players had been deliberately difficult, he told the conference that accessing data had been a battle, with “doom loops” standing in the way of transparency.

The audience laughed when Smith revealed that intermediaries claimed ‘technical reasons’ made it hard to share data

He said: “There have been such significant challenges in obtaining the data for the study – due to difficulties with contracts, permissions, data and technology that it has taken more than one year to secure access to the data required to run the study. This market has simply not evolved to be audited by accredited third parties.”

In what he said was a real example of the battle to get at the data despite both the client and the publisher giving it the green light, Smith pointed to barriers thrown up by the supply-side platforms and demand-side platforms that act as broker between advertiser and publisher, while taking a clip along the way.

He said: “A publisher authorises PwC to access data from a supply-side platform. The SSP then requires permission of the DSP, which then turns to the advertiser’s agency for permission, which ends full circle with the agency seeking permission from the advertiser.

“These doom loops have literally taken months in some cases to resolve and, once resolved, the data could not always be shared for technical reasons.”

There was laughter in the room as Smith emphasised the words “technical reasons”.

The detective work also hit further challenges, said Smith.

“Other major themes include a complete lack of consistency, in recording, in definitions and in data availability. For example, are revenues recorded net or gross of tech fees? What constitutes ‘net revenue’? And inconsistent reporting of elements like date, currency and device type.”

In a diplomatic choice of words, Smith suggested the commercial interests of some of those platform intermediaries were different to those of the advertisers and publishers.

He said: “There is misalignment of interest: while advertisers and publishers want to exchange valuable audiences for quality advertising, their interests are not evident in the operation of the market.”

He added: “Lastly, there is just sheer complexity and opaqueness. For these 15 advertisers, trying to place advertising with 12 publishers, more than 1,000 distinct supply chain variations have been identified, with deep-rooted technological idiosyncrasies.

“No individual advertiser could be expected to possess the capabilities required to create visibility on their own. Even the term ‘transparency’ is bandied around in numerous, inconsistent ways.”

Like the ACCC in Australia, the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK has turned its attention to the digital supply chain.

Smith said: “We’re not surprised then, that the CMA has identified this sector for further investigation and we look forward to their final report with massive interest.”

Despite the barriers, Smith revealed that the PwC report will be ready for release next month.

He said: “The good news for advertisers is that the final ‘permissioning’ issues are being resolved, data are flowing and our study will report in April.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.