Ad Technology

The Importance of Auditing

By: Tom Hespos

Does advertising need a refresher on the importance of auditing?

I think it does. Never in my career have I seen media auditing and verification take a backseat quite like it does today.

In the first few years of my career, it was unheard of for major national advertisers to buy ads in unaudited magazines. Clients frequently hired media auditing firms to ensure that they had a second pair of eyes focused on receiving the full value of their investments in broadcast.

“Trust, but verify” seemed to be the law of the land in the media business.

Audits played a role in proving delivery of an advertiser’s ad to its audience. Some of my earliest assignments in my career as a media guy involved checking copies of magazines, Polaroids of billboards, and other such spot checks of media delivery, so that clients felt reassured their ads were being delivered, and that any behind-the-scenes chicanery might be identified by an advertiser’s agency through a rigorous process of conducting spot-checks.

Over the years, these spot checks have sometimes turned up some . . . well, bad behavior.  So have other little incidents I’ve witnessed – like delivery drivers dumping thousands upon thousands of copies of a well-known ad-supported publication into dumpsters under the cover of darkness, or digital screenshots proving to be fakes, or delivery numbers not jiving with one another.

Whenever the ground for fraud is fertile, you can count on bad players showing up in the ad space to take advantage of the situation. It’s sad to say, but I haven’t seen a media landscape as fertile as the current one.

Fueling the fraud fire are a number of different factors. Chief among them is the commoditization of media. When coupled with the downward pricing pressure on publishers, it’s no wonder that many magazines, especially smaller B2B trade publications, have foregone expensive audits with respect to their circulations. This used to simply be a cost of doing business, but publishing margins can be so razor-thin that many publishers opt simply to avoid audits entirely.

Another factor is the rapid evolution of media vehicles – they can often evolve and be pressed into service on behalf of advertisers before reliable methods for auditing their delivery can be proposed, accepted and adopted.

Nowhere is this more evident than with programmatic media buying. Our company spent years trying to ensure end-to-end auditability of its solution, only to find out that shortcomings of ad technology meant we could have that visibility only as far back as to the ad exchanges, as we weren’t privy to the details of the arrangements publishers had with supply-side platforms in order to make their inventory biddable. Still, we extended the auditability at least from the purchase back to the ad exchange, and did catch some bad players in out-and-out fraud in a handful of situations.

Programmatic is far from the only culprit in digital, however, when it comes to situations that erode trust between advertisers and the publishers and tech companies that address their marketing objectives. Quite simply, tech can make it just as easy to mask issues with delivery as it is to deliver that message to begin with. As we develop new systems for ensuring delivery, we see techniques emerge just as quickly to game the system.

One of the things I’ve struggled with is to keep the culture of “trust, but verify” alive and well in my own company. The will is certainly there, but it’s the tech that often presents the challenge. I find it helpful, when assessing a new vehicle, to think of a solid answer to this question: If I had to prove, retroactively, that my client’s ads ran on this platform, how would I do it?

“Trust, but verify,” should make a big comeback in the media business, until we’re at least as vigilant as we were 25 years ago, and verification once again becomes part of the cost of doing business, rather than an expensive luxury for only the most lucrative media brands.

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