Low trust in online media quality has led to an overreliance on private marketplaces, observes 33Across' Eric Wheeler. Here he explores how the industry should pursue quality at source. 

When a New Yorker wakes up with a dry mouth in the middle of the night, she stumbles from her bed to the sink, turns on the tap, and quenches her thirst with a glass of cold, crisp water before ambling back to sleep. At no point does she worry that her 3 a.m. dehydration might lead her to gulp down water that could cause her to get sick – and she shouldn’t. She can unconsciously drink, trusting that the NYC water has been filtered at the source, all the way from the Catskills or the Delaware Watershed.

Why doesn’t the same principle apply to programmatic advertising? Simple answer: it should.

The problem is that when we put the plumbing in place for programmatic, we stopped short. We installed a filter at the faucet instead of the point of intake or source, forcing the entire industry to come up with downstream solutions that are costly, create chaos, and engender mistrust.

Faulty filters lead to clogged programmatic pipes

One result of the lack of upstream filtering is the current overreliance on private marketplaces (PMPs) to achieve acceptable viewability and fraud levels.

Creating these PMPs is both time-consuming and error-prone, which unnecessarily drives up operational costs and limits campaign scale. It’s not that PMPs are never appropriate – just that they are best deployed to test more innovative strategies and data segments – not for hitting basic quality metrics.

Another symptom is the clutter we see across the open exchange ecosystem. According to benchmarks from Oracle’s MOAT Analytics, just under half of the impressions flooding open exchanges in Q4 2018 were not even viewable. The problem is that these low-quality impressions aren’t just worth nothing, they are actually losing advertisers money because of the cost incurred by needing to process, analyze and potentially claw back billions of opportunities.

Furthermore, it causes damage to the publisher’s brand, in addition to the real cost of serving, measuring, and refunding impressions on their end.

So why are we still letting unfiltered water flow through the pipes? Well, now that buyers have greater transparency into wasted impressions things are starting to change, quickly.

Historically, there was an assumption that acceptable display inventory was nearly infinite and dirt cheap. In reality, many of these impressions and clicks were out of view or from bots. As attribution and measurement solutions improve, marketers are gaining better insight into inventory cost vs. actual value, and ditching their addiction to low-cost, low quality scale.

Upstream filters support true SPO

Now that we’re well into 2019, I'm hopeful that the industry will make a push for quality and transparency filtered at the source. Supply Path Optimization (SPO) is a key example of the shift toward quality – yet even as advertisers home in on which of their buying partners are delivering the most value, the flood of inventory powered by client-side and server-to-server (S2S) header bidding demonstrate the need for filtering for viewability and fraud before the impressions even hit the exchange.

If we as an industry truly want to continue addressing quality issues, we need to recognize that moving upstream toward the source is one of the keys to making the most of SPO.

Besides being a more efficient way to do business, creating a baseline of quality inventory offers an environment where innovation can flourish. For too long the industry has been forced to obsess over “human” and “viewable,” at the expense of more advanced, real-time, contextual and audience signals.

Instead of basic viewability, why not optimize toward higher quality attention with targeting levers such as minimum time-in-view, share-of-voice, and optimal creative size? It’s possible today but we need to build on the right foundation. Quality inventory is finite but accessing it at scale is also the foundation for driving real results for any campaign and the industry overall.