Media Briefing: Buyers say the MFA panic is over – but not forgotten

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

The mania around made-for-advertising sites (MFAs) has calmed down, according to five agency executives – though MFAs are anything but forgotten.

“In terms of priorities for 2024, MFAs are currently about a 4 out of 10,” said Deva Bronson, evp and global head of brand assurance at Dentsu, via email. “We see this as important, but we are confident that our current approach is successful. Given this, combined with the community efforts over the past 6-12 months, we see this as waning compared to others priorities in the space.”

Melissa Ilardi, vp of media and strategy at Media Two Interactive, said that her team’s use of inclusion lists and changes to their viewability and frequency settings to monitor campaign performance has helped instill some confidence that clients’ ads will not appear on MFA sites this year. 

“[MFAs] are not any more of a concern going into 2024 than [they were] last year because we have so many different systems in place that would mitigate any concern,” Ilardi said. “One thing that [the MFA panic] definitely brought to light was not necessarily just trusting a PMP because [MFAs are] showing up there too.” 

Last summer, the advertising industry was made alarmingly aware of MFAs as a type of publisher that was a master of ad arbitrage and might boast high viewability and click-through rates on their programmatic inventory, but ultimately didn’t deliver much else in the way of campaign success. 

Advertisers quickly became obsessed with identifying how much of their campaign budgets were being allocated to (and subsequently wasted on) this “low calorie” ad inventory, spinning the ad tech industry into correction mode. SSPs and holding companies went as far as adopting inclusion lists that were free of any MFA sites, but without a universal definition for what classifies a publisher as an MFA site until October, advertisers and their agency counterparts were being stricter than probably necessary in their site purging practices. 

In short, it was a bit of a witch hunt against MFAs. 

But now, because of the checks and balances put in place last year to reduce or eliminate MFAs from the programmatic inventory they’re purchasing, agency execs have been able to downgrade their prioritization level. 

MFAs have been solidified as a table stakes question that advertisers have for media buyers when discussing campaign performance, among other variables like brand safety, brand suitability, viewability and fraud, said Rory Latham, senior director of global investment, programmatic at GroupM. 

“We still have a lot of interest from clients about understanding how they’re protected from it. And I think that, reassuringly, that concern is here to stay,” said Latham. “It falls under all those categories of how we are cutting out content the client doesn’t want to be appearing against.” 

Leah Askew, svp and head of precision media at Digitas, said that MFAs are still a “higher priority” in 2024, but between the targeting tools and MFA filters created by Publicis Groupe and DSPs like The Trade Desk, she said she feels her team is in a strong position to maintain the “pursuit of quality inventory” in the new year.  

“We won’t just buy an audience anywhere they are anymore; that definition of programmatic is antiquated,” said Askew. 

The rapid production of AI-generated content online, however, is acting as a fuel source for MFA sites, which Latham said prevents him from feeling like he can rely solely on the MFA prevention measures put in place in 2023.  

“I still do get regular questions on it, but it has fallen out of that panic state,” said Latham. “[With] the rise of AI content, we’re evolving with it to make sure that our clients are continually protected. It’s an industry that never stands still so the protections and the safeguards have to continue to evolve as well.” 

But for other agency execs, that ever-evolving industry has forced a shift in focus away from MFAs. The other factors impacting programmatic advertising this year, like third-party cookie deprecation from Chrome, have essentially unseated MFAs from a position of priority.

“I would say there is less urgency in addressing MFAs compared to other topics such as cookie deprecation and brand safety, although one could argue that MFAs fall within the topic of brand safety,” said an agency executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We have identified tools and protocols to solve for MFAs and feel good about our path forward there, while the other topics are continuing to evolve and not fully solved for.”

What we’ve heard

“[Amazon] got a little bit of a later start to the game compared to some others, but because of that, I think they were able to take some of the things that the others did wrong and make better products. We obviously know that at the end of the day, all of these companies, like Google [and Amazon], don’t have the publishers’ best interest [in mind] … but I think overall, [Amazon] has been a good partner.” 

– A publisher exec at Amazon’s AWS Publishing Symposium on Tuesday who spoke on the condition of anonymity and evaluated Amazon’s standing as an ad partner compared to Google. 

Axios is testing artificial intelligence tools for its ad sales and editorial teams, but is currently at the stage where it’s weighing the costs of using these tools against the benefits they can provide employees, Axios CTO Melanie Colton told Digiday.

To evaluate those costs, Axios is running a “proof of concept” (POC) program with Amazon’s AWS cloud platform, Colton said. Amazon gives customers access to its AWS resources and tools as part of these programs to help businesses learn how to use different tech infrastructures and understand their value. In this case, Axios is testing machine learning and AI frameworks and services to evaluate the business value of those tools.

“What we’re evaluating now is seeing if the cost of rolling out the tech may not offset the time it’s saving our editors,” she said. “Every drafted piece of content gets processed [by the AI technology], and right now that’s expensive. But I think as [these tools] become more commonplace in the market, it’ll become cheaper. It’ll just take some time.” Colton declined to give specific details on these costs.

In January, Colton created a cross-functional incubator team to, in part, put a greater focus on examining which AI tools the company can use. So far, the tools are being tested to improve Axios’s audience insights for ad targeting, which is ”key to closing higher yield deals,” said Colton, who did not provide figures to support this. The tech is also being tested to make certain editorial processes (such as tagging keywords in the CMS and generating text to summarize images) more efficient.

Axios didn’t hire anyone for this team, but brought together two application developers, a data scientist, a data engineer and a data quality engineer, Colton said. Axios isn’t launching any new products built on top of generative AI technology yet as the team determines which generative AI products are safe to adopt, she added.

According to Colton, Axios is currently testing:

  • Adobe’s generative AI tools to create derivative assets based on Axios’ brand designs (for marketing purposes, for example) the publisher has already created.
  • Using AI tools for managing and sourcing illustrations for stories. 
  • Building an internal tool to help surface existing Axios content in new articles, rather than link to external sources, to save editors time.
  • Using generative AI tools to scale local news coverage by helping Axios’ data visualizations team sift through information, such as municipal data or census results (currently a “very manual process,” according to Colton).

Other than Adobe and Microsoft Pilot, Colton declined to name other specific AI tools and companies Axios is testing.

None of these tests will move further into adoption if the costs outweigh the efficiencies, Colton said. “We have to figure out how much will it cost, and then be more aggressive from there.” — Sara Guaglione

Numbers to know

17%: The amount that Spotify’s subscription revenue increased in the fourth quarter of 2023, totaling about $3.4 billion (€3.17 billion), according to the company’s earnings report. 

-3.7%: The amount that The New York Times’ digital ad revenue fell year over year in Q4 2023, with the company missing its expected total advertising revenue in the quarter. 

$50 million: The amount of money that the five-year-old media company Air Mail is in talks to sell for to the billionaire CEOs of roofing company Standard Industries.

What we’ve covered

Publishers assess Amazon’s role in their post-cookie ad businesses:

  • Amazon is offering to connect the dots between media companies’ first-party contextual data and its own transaction data as a retailer.
  • During Amazon’s AWS Publishing Symposium on Tuesday in Manhattan, publishers in attendance said that the opportunities to enhance their contextual targeting’s accuracy via Amazon’s audience data was appealing, but it wasn’t something that they were currently doing. 

Learn more about how publishers are working with Amazon on contextual targeting here

Meta expands AI image labeling to include AI-generated content from other platforms:

  • With AI-generated content spreading across social media, Meta yesterday announced plans to add new policies and detection tool to improve transparency and prevent harmful content. 
  • Some question if the efforts will take effect soon enough or be effective enough to prevent harm.

Read more about Meta’s AI detection tool here.

Cookie deprecation eclipses the economy as publishers’ biggest challenge this year: 

  • According to Digiday+ Research surveys of more than 120 publisher professionals, the biggest concern this year among publishers is the deprecation of the third-party cookie. 
  • Nearly a third of publisher pros said in late Q4 2023 that third-party cookie deprecation is the biggest challenge the industry will face this year, up from just 6% who picked third-party cookie deprecation as the biggest challenge for 2023.

Get a deeper look at the survey results here

Decoding publishers’ concerns over Google’s Privacy Sandbox’s Protected Audiences API:

  • Publishers are once again experiencing the “shock” of being overlooked by Google. This time, it’s the impending death of third-party cookies in Chrome that’s got them riled up. 
  • The Protected Audiences API, a critical piece for retargeting without cookies, is lacking in transparency and reporting. 

Read more about publishers’ gripe with Google’s Privacy Sandbox PA API here.

3 Questions with Julie Alvin, svp of content at theSkimm:

  • In this week’s Marketing Briefing, Digiday spoke with theSkimm about the company’s marketing and audience strategy amid third-party cookie deprecation on Chrome. 
  • “The core of our business is and has always been newsletter. And so as a result, we already have [first-party data like emails], we don’t have to cast about for it,” said Alvin. 

Hear more from Alvin here

What we’re reading

Inside The Messenger’s final days:

Jordan Hoffman, a now former senior entertainment writer and film critic for The Messenger, shared a first-person account in New York Magazine of what the final day was like working for the media start-up that shuttered after eight months. 

Substack is getting into the ad business:

Founded on the promise of giving writers a platform unencumbered by the pressures of advertising, Substack is now testing a pilot program that would help creators sell ads, Axios reported.   

Inside the mind of an AI-generated content kingpin:

Nebojša Vujinović Vujo owns more than 2,000 abandoned news outlets, websites and blogs as part of his digital marketing firm Shantel. With the help of AI, he’s reviving those sites, filling them up with generic, search-engine-optimized, AI-generated content that he then monetizes using a mix of programmatic ads, sponsored content and selling backlink placements, according to Wired. This is one example of the role that generative AI is playing in the MFA conversation. 

Kara Swisher’s take on how the tech industry obliterated media: 

In an article for New York Magazine adapted from Swisher’s upcoming book, Burn Book, the podcast host and longtime journalist shared her three-decades’ worth of first-hand experience watching the tech industry influence, change and then destroy the media industry with Intelligencer. 

Semafor teams up with Microsoft to create news stories using AI chatbot:  

As part of the deal, Microsoft is paying Semafor to sponsor a new breaking news feed called “Signals” which will publish about a dozen posts per day, according to the Financial Times. The posts will be written by journalists, however, AI will be used as a research tool to inform the reporting.

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