A new initiative aims to rehabilitate programmatic. The IAB’s latest guidelines are poised to bring greater transparency and security to digital ad buying. Here’s what Curt Larson, of the IAB Tech Lab and Sharethrough, thinks you need to know.

At the start of the year, there was a sense of disillusionment with programmatic. Enticed by data-driven efficiency and scale, some were starting to feel the real automated path was rife with “too many detours, potholes and poorly lit back roads crawling with bandits.” Ads.txt was just getting scaled-up, and many other issues remained unaddressed.

But hope is now rising that a new initiative — OpenRTB 3.0 — could lay those fears to rest. Setting a higher bar for verification, the Internet Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) latest guidelines are poised to deliver greater transparency and security, right down to the impression level, if the industry embraces and adopts them.

So, how will OpenRTB 3.0 strengthen programmatic, and why is a major update so important?

Tackling industry challenges

To understand what the guidelines will do, it’s vital to recap on current issues. The programmatic ecosystem has become much more complex over recent years. As the supply chain has expanded, tracing and validating ad impressions has become difficult, with buying paths traversing multiple publishers, exchanges, header wrappers, ad networks, demand-side platforms (DSPs), and advertisers. Not only is there limited visibility into the route media takes, but every hop also creates an opportunity for error or fraud; especially as text fields that list inventory contents are editable and therefore vulnerable to malicious interference.

Consequently, concerns about ad quality have increased — with transparency and brand safety named among the top three digital challenges of 2018 — and fraud is growing. In fact, according to the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), fraud could cost the global industry $50 billon by 2025. This is where standards come in. As the industry has matured, bodies such as the IAB have consistently worked to boost clarity and safety by establishing benchmarks all can follow, such as ads.txt and the Open Real Time Bidding Framework — of which OpenRTB 3.0 is the newest iteration. 

OpenRTB 3.0: the next step forward

The IAB’s efforts to date have made a positive difference. Ads.txt, for example, enables advertisers to assess inventory by checking exchanges against lists of approved sellers for the domain prior to purchase – in the same way you might check if the store you’re in is authorised to sell the expensive watch brand you’re looking at. The idea being that advertisers can avoid bogus traders and direct spend towards genuine publishers. Ads.txt has resulted in measurable improvements for both advertisers and publishers.

However, ads.txt only addresses domain fraud, just one aspect of a large ad fraud spectrum that includes multiple threats, such as fake IP addresses, formats, device types, IDs, and bots. Further, while ads.txt has achieved incredible adoption, not all buyers and DSPs are filtering to buy only authorised supply.

OpenRTB 3.0 aims to accomplish its mission in two key ways. First, it introduces a signing protocol to enable the publisher to stamp the impression with an authenticated signature. What’s the real-world benefit? Many types of ad fraud involve changing specific details that describe the impression to the buyer – such as the domain the ad will be shown on or the user ID. By signing these details at the source, the buyer will be able to detect if they have been tampered with and make an informed decision about whether they should buy that impression.

Secondly, OpenRTB 3.0 provides a new method for exchanges and publishers to approve advertising creatives. While publishers often want to review the creatives that will run on their site, there are many barriers in doing so, including the way they are delivered. OpenRTB 3.0 addresses this with the introduction of a new standard method for communicating approvals and rejections between the buy-side and the sell-side.

Making standards stick

OpenRTB 3.0 went through two rounds of public comment, which just concluded on September 24th. The OpenRTB working group and commit group is presently working to release a final version of the specification. Several platforms have already signed up to be early adopters and we are hopeful we will see uptake in Q1 2019. OpenRTB 3.0 is not just another spec revision, but truly moves the ball forward concerning trust and transparency in the ecosystem, and I am confident it will result in increased revenue for publishers and improved performance for advertisers.

The choice to put accountability and clarity first is coming; now it’s up advertisers, publishers, and vendors to seize it.