The New Mall Rats

Updated: Oct 16, 2018

Article contributed by Matt Prohaska, Programmatic Advertising Director, The New York Times

Growing up in Jamestown, NY was pretty nice, especially in the summers when I was around 12 years old in the 1940s, I mean 1980s. And it was a pretty simple time too, in a good way. Every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, my parents would drive me to the local Putt-Putt, which became my second church. Mondays at Putt-Putt were All-U-Can-Play Day where we played from 9a-5p. For lunch, my friends and I would get lunch at the nearby Wendy’s and then walk over to the Chautauqua Mall to play video games. We had a pretty good mall for our town – an Orange Julius, a Spencer Gifts, a JC Penney AND a Sears, plus that weird clothing store for older kids, Chess King.

There was one part of the mall though that we didn’t really go near, fortunately at the other end of our arcade. This one wing had a couple empty stores, some mean kids hanging out doing nothing, and people getting harassed, even robbed one time we heard. I remember there being a couple cool stores down near that end, but we never went, because we didn’t want to go near these other kids. Years later the mall came on harder times and it wasn’t the same place, partially I thought because there was no one around working for the mall to clean up that one tough area that started spreading beyond that one wing.

I have used the brick-and-mortar retail store analogy a lot these days when talking internally and externally about digital media exchanges – think it holds up pretty well. The Open exchange is like having a clothing store with no sign out front, no one helping you when you walk in, and all your products, instead of being lined up neatly arranged with labels and price tags, just thrown in a cardboard box for customers to rummage around and pay almost whatever they want. We at The New York Times and many other publishers, through our private exchanges, have now started labeling the items, folding the shirts and pants, putting someone at the cash register, and having someone smart and nice under our big sign ask the customer as they enter, “How may I help you?”

The same analogy can hold true for the, I will suggest, short-term issue we face today around fraud and bot traffic that is unfortunately >0% of all exchange inventory. The Open exchange has always been a bit of Buyer Beware because it is initially blind to both buyer and seller. But the levels of traffic that are not from known, legitimate publishers, big and small, are causing some concern about the health of the overall ecosystem. Some independent services like WhiteOps, Peer39, and IAS have recently enhanced their offerings to jump on this market need. Many have suggested who is to blame, but isn’t it ultimately up to the mall itself, not the buyers or sellers (trading desks, legitimate publishers, or the brands), to clean up the place? Aren’t the exchanges themselves the ones taking a decent transaction fee, from rapidly-growing transactions, from buyers bidding on impressions that go to “companies” or often individuals that are just scamming the system? How would Target or Brooks Brothers feel if right next door to them in the mall there was an unlabeled store with some guy sitting behind a card table selling stolen merchandise (URL masking) or products that are don’t work at all? And how many big brands have read or heard about this and decided, without our knowledge, to move much less of their budgets into programmatic as they could/should? I had the privilege of leading a breakout session/town hall chat around programmatic issues at last week’s Digiday Publishers Summit, and when we got to the topic of fraud, the room was split pretty evenly around thinking this was a big deal, little deal, or no deal. But there weren’t any major brands in the room, since the conference wasn’t geared to them – mostly publishers and ad tech vendors – so I wonder how that mix would have changed.

It’s great that a couple exchanges have started touting their efforts to clean up the fraud on their exchanges, but it’s time to move this past being just some nice competitive market positioning. We need a measurement standard that shows how much fraud is showing up on (in alpha order) AppNexus, Casale’s Index, Google’s Ad Ex, Improve, OpenX, PubMatic, Rubicon, and other major exchanges around the world. Or at least have more publishers asking the exchanges to quantify their detected fraud levels and get to apples & apples. Maybe it’s something to get on the next OpenRTB agenda, and once we finish our first initiatives at the IAB’s relatively-new Programmatic Publishers Council, this is one of the next items I will suggest we tackle together.

I look forward to getting our malls cleaned up soon and moving past this current phase where the markets, exchanges, and buying/selling platforms are still relatively nascent. Because I and many other publishers want to bring more programmatic buyers the same enjoyable experience I had back in the day, when I could just eat my Frosty and keep pumping quarters into Marble Madness.

Matt Prohaska is Programmatic Advertising Director at The New York Times. Look for his column on the fourth Thursday of every month.