Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The Digital Voice Mic Drops: building trust in programmatic – a conversation with Ian Moss

In the ever-evolving world of online advertising, programmatic buying has become a dominant force, projected to account for just under $600 billion of ad spend in 2024. 

However, with its continued rise come concerns about transparency and accountability as programmatic supply chains come under increased scrutiny.  That’s where groups like the UK Stop Ad Funded Crime (UKSAFC) come in, a group tackling these issues head-on. It’s also why, at RocketMill, we have set up our Marketplace solutions as a means of optimising the supply chain to reduce the number of hops within it and ultimately improve transparency.

To find out what motivates this organisation and how best to navigate this ever-evolving channel, RocketMill’s Senior Programmatic Director, Ben Norville, sat down with advisor and spokesperson, Ian Moss of UKSAFC.

Transparency concerns in programmatic advertising have been among the top media challenges for years now and the UKSAFC is so important to driving future trust in our industry. What led you to be a spokesperson for UKSAFC, and what are your motivators? 

My journey into programmatic regulation began with a focus on copyright protection. Taking part in a series of government roundtables aiming to resolve the problem of online piracy, I witnessed first-hand brands’ frustrations when their content ended up on pirate sites with ads served by programmatic platforms (with those same brands not having the technical understanding to know where their ads went, so couldn’t stop things). This sparked a realisation:  brands had no way of knowing where their ads were truly being displayed. The industry totally lacked transparency; the problem was bigger than piracy. The market needed regulation.

What do you think Industry change looks like?

Well you can’t get all the ad agencies in a room together to resolve things for obvious reasons but as an industry as a whole, we can set principles for everyone to work towards. In reality, anyone who makes a move on this will potentially increase their costs and decrease the amount of impressions they will serve which is why there’s hesitancy. People don’t want to lose their competitive edge.

Our view at RocketMill is that it will increase our competitive edge, as we reduce wastage, increase quality, and find more relevant reach. Performance and transparency are interlinked. Programmatic is dynamic in its nature; it involves a lot of parties – do you think this is part of the issue? Is it a viable solution to simply reduce the number of partners in the supply chain?

Complexity shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. The key lies in establishing trust and transparency through measures like participant identification and verification.

Like everything in digital, the fact it’s reasonably ‘new’ has meant it has been seen as complicated to resolve. But is it really as complicated, different or new as any other really complex supply chain? It needs to be seen for what it is (and not what it does) . It’s a financial bidding exchange, but unlike a stock exchange, for example, it’s not tightly regulated, we don’t know every person in the chain. If we are going to allow someone to plug into an Supply-Side Platform (SSP), we need to know who they are – because we do that in any other financial system, so why not in programmatic?

I completely agree, and this is where the expertise and the partnerships developed by agencies with reliable partners is valuable. Where else do you think that responsibility lies? With the SSPs?

It’s not just an SSP problem. We need to look at current practice in the financial sector; tools like The EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive or The Financial Services Authority regulation. It has to be a problem that’s addressed collectively, where participants are identified and verified, similar to financial regulations. This increased transparency would make it easier to track and combat fraudulent activity.

Collaboration between policymakers and the industry is absolutely key to achieving lasting solutions for programmatic transparency.

Do you think responsibility should lie within the industry, rather than through government intervention?

It’s simply better for the industry to get together and recognise its collective problem and work towards a solution that is pragmatic – rather than do nothing and wait for something unpragmatic to happen.

The problem has historically been that the brands get all the slack, but the reality is, there are some brands and agencies who only know where 50% of their spend goes. If brands don’t have the ability to pose constraints on where their inventory is going, then we have a problem. You either find a way of better tracking through the system or you find a means of knowing exactly who you’re trading with. 

It’s hard for any individual player to know or see what they can do, which is why UKSAFC is trying to bring everyone together. It means that no one part of the system will be under the spotlight or at a disadvantage for taking action.

It’s definitely key that we work towards a collective solution but I also believe that the responsibilities to understand, control, and develop your supply chain sits with the buyers, whether agency or brand. At RocketMill, we prioritise developing deeper relationships, and working with fewer, trusted partners. We also monitor log-level data to understand what’s going on. Is there any other advice you have for people who work within a programmatic agency or on the brand-side?

Share best practice, be transparent and work together to tackle the common problem. Know who you’re working with, and take ownership of the problem as much as you can.

Since the 2020 ISBA PWC study on programmatic transparency, the industry has seen a shift towards greater transparency and accountability both independently and collectively.  As Programmatic media buying continues to expand across media channels, such as CTV, Audio and Digital Out of Home, it has never been more important to understand exactly what and from who you are buying.  Although there are issues with supply chains in the industry, there doesn’t have to be. The opportunity within programmatic to be more efficient, innovative, dynamic and intelligent with your spend far outweighs this when done correctly.

At RocketMill, we are at the forefront of understanding programmatic supply chains and optimising our exposure to them via our Marketplace solutions and proprietary data analysis tools. While this approach is tailored to the needs of our clients, the premise of the approach is simple. We work with fewer partners to achieve greater transparency and minimise third-party reseller fees and ad fraud by using the log level data we all have as our guide. This ultimately translates more of our client’s budgets into media spend. We will continue to work with partners such as UKSAFC to help guide discussions, collaborate on best practices, and continue to drive innovation in an exciting space.