With the Marc-Pritchard-inspired clean-up of digital marketing under way, we are entering a period of transition that will have a lasting impact on the future of our industry, says Julia Connaughton, Head of Digital, the7stars.

Digital media has grown rapidly in recent years, but with rapid growth comes growing pains, and the industry was given a jolt in September when Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand officer at Procter & Gamble, took aim at a number of issues ranging from viewability and ad fraud to agency transparency.

At Dmexco, he called for action to be taken and outlined practices surrounding the digital supply chain which must be an area of focus in 2018. Where the use of ad verification systems to block and monitor may previously have been viewed as a ‘nice to have’, they should now become one of the pillars of every media schedule.

Big UK brands have taken notice of this subsequent drive for greater transparency, and conversations around ad fraud have forced the industry to open its eyes and take action. At the7stars, transparency has always been at our core and we believe the five steps identified by Pritchard in January, and reiterated on-stage at Dmexco in September, should become foundational to the industry in 2018:

1. Adhere to the Industry-wide Media Ratings Council (MRC) validated viewability standard

Viewability remains a hot topic in digital advertising. Most agencies will have defined benchmarks for their clients, using the IAB guidelines or Jicweb’s Digital Trading Standards Group's joint principle, or benchmarks can be derived from verification partners and historical media campaign performance.

Measurement companies such as Integral Ad Science, Moat, Double Verify and ComScore are still vital for measuring viewability, ensuring that digital ads across programmatic, mobile, social and video are proven to be seen by human users.

But the creation of ‘next generation ads’ is moving the industry forward into new territory as media owners look to build better formats that consumers prefer to interact with. This mirrors the IAB’s Gold Standard Initiative - launched in October 2017 - which aims to improve the digital advertising experience by adhering to the LEAN principles, as created by the Coalition for Better Ads.

But despite all of this there remains no industry-wide standard in place across media owners, and so it falls upon agencies to dictate their accepted levels of viewability. While many agencies have taken important steps, the lack of official standards has left room for interpretation, and – naturally – error. It is, then, the responsibility of both clients and agencies to ensure that high standards are kept, and that sector bodies keep pushing for industry-wide standards.

2. Pursue third-party verification accredited by MRC

While third party verification tools can measure ad fraud, brand safety and viewability, Pritchard decided to focus on the way we manage excess frequency. Frequency management in digital continues to be a difficult nut to crack and a big source of frustration for agencies – as it is for consumers and brands.

Essentially, you cannot effectively cap across the walled gardens – subscription-based platforms like social media services – and programmatic, and you cannot (yet) implement tracking across broadcaster VOD sites, whilst cross-device measurement remains challenging. There is little reason to believe these challenges will abate in 2018.

However, those fiercest of competitors, ITV, C4 and Sky, are coming together to provide a more joined-up view. Likewise, major parties are reviewing measurement solutions and agencies are looking to develop proprietary technology. This could provide the much-needed breathing space every stakeholder needs.

3. Implement tag-certified ad fraud prevention

JPMorgan Chase’s CMO, Kristin Lemkau, recently said advertisers are expected to lose a staggering $16.4 billion this year to ad fraud - more than double the loss recorded in 2016. The ‘long tail’ of sites within programmatic, although not the exclusive cause, has served to exacerbate the problem, and brands should be insisting that their agencies employ robust anti-fraud policies to cover everything from the way media is bought to the systems used to measure media delivery.

Whether agencies take a hard stance on avoiding the programmatic ‘long tail’ remains to be seen but where premium is concerned there is a finite number of publishers with a finite number of high-quality, viewable ad formats, and this means that the demand for such environments will become more competitive.

Brands may then begin to choose their media agencies based on fraud protection policies and the internal teams they have in place. In 2018, we should expect to see advertisers introducing more legal language into contracts (such as ISBA) in an effort to reduce fraud and avoid paying when impressions are found to have been fraudulent.

4. Provide brand safety assurances

Automation has been a double-edged sword. It has delivered efficiencies in buying, scale and audiences reached, and yet it has also brought risk to a brand’s reputation when ads are unintentionally placed next to inappropriate content or within objectionable sites.

Agencies tend to pick the verification vendors to work with, and have a responsibility to clients to share how their brands will be kept safe. Whilst agencies and some publishers cannot guarantee 100% contextual brand safety in all environments, it’s important they approach the issue with a zero-tolerance mindset.

Employing inclusion and exclusion lists is a good start to mitigating the risks to brands’ reputations but this needs to be overlaid with ad blocking and verification software if they are to further enhance brand safety.

5. Brands should demand – and agencies should provide – 100% transparent contracts

Transparency was at the very centre of Pritchard’s comments in the last year, and there is clear appetite for it among clients. In 2017, the World Federation of Advertisers commissioned a survey of 35 large global companies which found that 70% of respondents had amended their contracts with media agencies in an attempt to improve transparency.

It is for this reason more agencies should support advertising trade body ISBA’s initiative in offering all members a templated media agency contract. At the7stars, we were the first major agency to adopt the contract which addresses the transparency issue head-on, committing agencies to putting the best interests of the client first at all times. We actively back it, offering it to all new and existing clients as standard, and we have also developed a white paper for our clients to outline what transparency means to us.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of both brands and agencies to express what transparency means to them and to explain what their position is on this crucial issue. With clients, agencies and supply chain partners working together for this common goal, 2018 might not be the year we get the job done, but it will go a long way toward making vital progress on the lengthy to-do list.

Read more on this topic in the WARC’s Toolkit 18 chapter: The drive for digital transparency.