From the Gold Standard to OpenRTB 3.0: How the industry is making standards stick

Ally Stuart, Managing Director EMEA at Sharethrough writes about industry standards. 

Ally Stuart

With each new year comes change, but for the last eight years the digital advertising industry has witnessed a consistent pattern – growth in ad spend. Continuing a trend that’s been rising for almost a decade, 2018 will see digital take 40% of the $578 billion global ad spend pot. This constant growth is placing new attention on the need for ad standards that protect a brand’s marketing investment. Aware of how much money is on the digital table, the industry is turning its attention to ensuring investment generates the best results for brands and consumers. More specifically, its aim is set on banishing brand safety and fraud concerns by creating robust transparency standards that will stick.

The key reason for this shift is clear: 2017 was a turbulent year for digital that brought home the need to boost clarity and trust across the industry. Fuelled largely by YouTube’s multiple brand safety scandals, there was mass recognition of ambiguity around several fundamental processes, including digital ad placement and trading — especially with regards to programmatic. In fact, according to a Queryclick survey, 41% of marketing and digital chiefs were considering cutting programmatic spend in the next 12 months due to poor transparency surrounding ad costs.

At first, there was confusion about who should take up the mantle; not aided by reports laying responsibility at specific doors — brands, agencies, and publishers in turn. Yet over the last few months, there has been a general acceptance that the entire ecosystem is accountable for reinforcing confidence in digital advertising by raising various benchmarks.

So, following the decree issued by P&G’s Marc Pritchard early last year — stating the agency would refuse to pay media partners not using industry-standard fraud protection, third-party verification, and viewability metrics — many leading figures have taken affirmative action.

Prominent amongst these initiatives is the IAB’s ‘Gold Standard’. Intended to help renovate the industry and ensure its future sustainability, the programme is built around three goals: reducing ad fraud, improving the digital advertising experience, and increasing brand safety. And it aims to meet them by driving adoption of LEAN principles (Light, Encrypted, Ad choice supported, Non-invasive ads), ads.txt, and JICWEBS certification.

The standard has already achieved significant traction. In addition to gaining public support from Facebook and Google, it has increased use of ads.text: files that list parties authorised to sell publisher inventory, thereby providing better media validity. Consequently, these files are on track to become the foundation for more transparent digital ad trading, particularly when it comes to programmatic. Although, it’s worth noting that this change is a precursor for a much larger revolution: the OpenRTB 3.0 Framework.

In short, the specifications within this protocol — including the requirement for all links in the supply chain to sign impressions that pass through their hands — will create a simpler and safer digital ecosystem. By enabling buyers to check the inventory origin, and publishers the power to confirm impressions are from their domains, it will cut ad fraud and tolerance for exchanges offering poor quality media. Plus, the opportunities it presents to verify details such as user location and ad size will enhance advertising relevance, and effectiveness.

Indeed, the emphasis on consistent rules seems to have caught on, with many collaborative efforts emerging to create and promote enhanced advertising practices. The most famous example of this is the Coalition for Better Ads: a collective of major global trade and media organisations dedicated to delivering positive online experiences for consumers. But others are starting to spring up; such as the recently formed partnership between Adobe and 15 ad tech vendors (including Sharethrough) aimed at increased transparency into fees.

And this brings us straight to the latest push for stricter digital criteria: Google Chrome’s new ad blocker. A result of work by the Coalition for Better Ads, the built-in blocker will remove ads identified as below its ‘Better Ad Standards’, such as full-page, flashing, and auto-play ads. While at face value, this could be taken as a blow for the industry; it’s actually just another step in the steady shift towards engaging ads and away from disruptive formats. Moreover, it can also serve as a barometer for online advertising standards: with publishers harnessing Google’s tool to check whether their sites pass the blocker test — and if not, finding new partners that can provide ads of sufficiently high quality.

As spend allocated to digital advertising continues its upward trajectory, it’s only logical for brands to want assurance their budgets are used to deliver content that’s relevant, secure, fraud free, and impactful. And the most effective way to do so is setting standards everyone can follow. In the last 12 months we’ve seen progress in boosting ad quality, fighting fraud, enhancing trust, and implementing fairer digital media trading. Now it’s up to the industry as a whole to maintain momentum and keep striving for an even more prosperous future. 

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