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Ad verification is under fire: Ad execs are questioning its role as protector

Right or wrong, ad verification technologies are the scapegoats whenever there’s a blunder in advertising.

Be it fraud, ID spoofing or shady sites, these tools usually end up shouldering the blame.

So it was no surprise when recent ad tech snafus dragged these companies into the spotlight.

Marketers were left scratching their heads when Forbes was caught running a site for ad dollar arbitrage, wondering why their verification tech missed it. The same eyebrow-raising frustration hit when Colossus was mismatching cookie IDs. They couldn’t help but ask: Where were DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science during all this?

The answers they got — rightly or wrongly — weren’t good enough for them, so they started to wonder how they might take matters into their own hands.

As one ad executive, who spoke to Digiday on condition of anonymity put it: “Marketers are rethinking whether to even use verification in the first place versus buying entirely curated [ad inventory] or opted-in [i.e. authenticated reach] only.”

Another exec put it like this: “The answers we got from the ad verification companies as to why they weren’t able to detect that Forbes was running a made-for-advertising site weren’t that encouraging. They’re not able to work at a granular level.”

Sound familiar? It should. A few years back, marketers were saying the same things about social media. They griped that ad verification companies hadn’t innovated fast enough to keep their ads safe from sketchy content on YouTube. So they turned to companies like Zefr, which offered more tailored solutions for those platforms.

And just like back then, the ad verification companies are now trying to state their case when it comes to programmatic advertising.

“We will strive to meet advertisers where they’re buying especially in complex channels that are gathering more spend like CTV and other areas of digital advertising,” said Dan Slivjanovski, CMO at DoubleVerify.

In fact, he argued that, in many cases, his business already does this: Made-for-advertising sites? The tech’s on top of them. In the Forbes instance, for example, the tech identified that the publisher was selling a separate site involved in arbitrage but didn’t flag it as nefarious since it wasn’t officially classified as fraud by industry standards. As for ID spoofing? That’s not something DoubleVerify would ever catch — not because it can’t, but because it doesn’t collect data on IDs and cookies for privacy reasons.

“There’s consternation that things like ID spoofing, MFA and other similar issues weren’t caught [by ad verification tech] and a lot of that has stemmed from a misunderstanding of what we do and have always done,” said Slivjanovski. “Whenever this has happened in the past we’ve immediately gone on an education offensive because we’re not in the business of making that [what we do] public.”

Whether marketers buy this will ultimately hinge on what they fundamentally believe verification tech should accomplish.

If they see it as a shield that’s meant to protect them from all things nefarious — past, present and future — then they’re not going to accept these explanations.

But if they view ad verification companies as seatbelts — adjustable to fit various brand preferences while ensuring security and compliance — then the stance might be more palatable.

Either way, ad execs are starting to feel the itch to take action. They know it’s time to at least explore other alternatives.

Sometimes that itch leads to marketers ditching ad verification firms altogether. Other times, they’re picking and choosing, keeping them for some tasks and cutting them out for others.

“We’ve advised our clients to use the various analytics platforms (think Adalytics and Fou Analytics) versus the so-called ad verification companies,” said Jay Friedman, CEO of independent media and marketing services firm Goodway Group.

Not everyone will take this advice, of course. Relaxing brand safety standards is risky business. The potential downsides? Tone-deaf messages, consumer backlash, negative associations and public shaming. But for the marketers who are weighing up their options, the alternatives Friedman is talking about could pay dividends. They highlight where ad dollars are being wasted, helping marketers avoid those spots and focus on the right places instead.

Meaning, there’s less need to block ads from sketchy sites in the first place. That’s the idea, anyway.

As Friedman puts it: “We have seen significantly improved controls over where we were buying before as a result of using analytics platforms compared to where we were before.”

Time will tell if more marketers follow this trend. Either way, expecting them to ditch ad verification companies en masse anytime soon is wishful thinking.

For one, there would be unintended consequences.

Like it or not, these companies are entrenched in digital ad buying. Walking away from them stirs up fears about brand reputation risks, wasted ad spend and lack of transparency. And that’s before dealing with the operational chaos.

Switching ad vendors could mess up campaign measurement and optimization, and even breach contracts with media owners and platforms that demand third-party verification.

That some advertisers are even considering this despite all the hassle speaks volumes about their frustration. They’re trying to manage those concerns by compromising and finding different tools to address various problems, rather than doing something too drastic.

And if that means using something as clumsy or random — in their eyes anyway — as traditional verification tech, so be it. As long as they’re not solely reliant on it, they can make it work.

Havas certainly has.

“We have a multi-layered approach to verification and aren’t relying on one partner to solve everything,” said Sarah Karges, svp of performance investment at Havas Media Network. “What we’re trying to address here in programmatic are industry issues. Rarely is there something that’s down to one platform. Having an interoperable approach is our response to this and has been for several years now.”

To this point, maybe all the current chatter and concerns around ad verification signal a recalibration, not a revolution. Sure, some marketers will ditch these technologies for all the reasons mentioned, but many more won’t — at least not entirely.

If that happens, at least marketers can manage their expectations about what typical ad verification tools can actually do. One interesting thread in these renewed discussions is that, sometimes, those frustrations are misplaced.

However, ID spoofing, MFAs and other issues will continue to cast doubt on companies like DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science. These concerns are heightened by their dual role in serving both sides of the market, raising questions about conflicts of interest. While the current focus is on the shortcomings of ad verification tech, it’s naive to think this will always be the case.

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