RTB: In the Shadow of the ‘New Black’


shadow_small.jpgADOTAS – Without a doubt, real-time bidding (RTB) is the best thing to happen to display since rich media. It’s sexy. It’s chic. It’s “the new black.”

But hiding in the shadows of “the new black” are fraudsters who are just as excited about the prospect of RTB as advertisers and agencies. To them, it’s a gold mine. It’s opportunity. It’s money. It’s your money, in fact.

Why are they excited? In the industry’s haste to build the RTB bandwagon, jump on it and ride it to the bank, more thought is being put into how RTB can make display more precise, efficient and effective versus making it watertight and foolproof.

Looking back on the history and evolution of search, it seems we can pretty much figure out what’s in store for us as RTB rapidly transforms display: a Google hegemony, tons of fraud and a never-ending struggle against content adjacency issues. And while only Yahoo! can prevent the first issue, the latter two are being addressed by a growing number of solution providers.

New forms of fraud are already appearing that will diminish the effectiveness of RTB and drive up costs for advertisers. One such example, which we call “ad stuffing,” falsely generates impression volume by purposely implementing multiple ad tags within a standard iframe banner. The banner is actually large enough to contain many, many ad tags, but with scrolling explicitly disabled within the iframe, only the first ad is visible and therefore actionable.

In this case, RTB delivers the right ad to the right person at the right time and the advertiser pays for the impression, only the intended target never sees it. The offline equivalent would be a big highway billboard blocking smaller billboards, or ad pages purposely glued together in a magazine.

To combat this, media buyers can employ tools that can monitor the extremely high number of ad requests being spawned by the ad tag — a laborious and time-intensive manual task, to be sure. Or they can embed verification technologies directly into ads to automatically evaluate banner delivery at the time of rendering.

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the new vulnerabilities and loopholes stemming from RTB. With greater efficiency comes greater complexity, and the more moving parts there are, the easier it is for the system to break down or be exploited. But even if we conquer the fraud problem, there are still the inevitable content adjacency issues.

RTB’s ability to micro-target and retarget audiences is astounding. The new Kool-Aid getting guzzled in the industry is “buy audiences, not context.” I fundamentally agree with this approach, but what if that audience goes where a brand dares not?

Back in the old days of buying on content sites, agencies were exceedingly careful about protecting their clients’ brands, and checked out the content before they bought: CNET = yes; Angelfire = no. As networks and exchanges became more prominent, agencies handed off the task of policing publishers.

Let’s face it — there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to improve the transparency of networks and exchanges. But now, with real-time bidding crunching data to deliver targeted impressions across numerous inventory sources, there’s even less focus on or awareness of content than before.

And without that knowledge, it’s going to be more difficult to guarantee brand protection. Without that guarantee, it’s going to be more difficult to convince big brand advertisers to spend more online.

That said, we believe there are two ways for brands and agencies to scale their reach without sacrificing safety. First, they can build a walled garden of sites manually. This is safe, but inefficient.

The second and more scalable way to build reach and audience is to partner with those technology providers who are actively building large footprints of safe, transparent traffic; not on blind networks — where risk still looms in the form of URL spoofing, passed tags and fraud — but via transparent media practices with specific reporting and safety tools built to assist brands in increasing reach safely.

I think everyone would agree that RTB has the potential to elevate display to the level of search — or beyond — in terms of delivering targeted ads. Some might even argue that RTB is what’s going to save display from becoming irrelevant.

I personally want RTB to succeed for the plain and simple reason that as campaigns become more efficient and effective, with reduced fraud and waste, online ad spending will increase and everyone in the industry will prosper.

But before we all go too far down that road to prosperity, let’s make sure that we take the time now to correct some of the mistakes that were made with display in the past so that 10 years from now we don’t find ourselves mired by the same issues that plague display today.


  1. Kirby-
    “Ad Stuffing” as you call is not a RTB specific problem. It is quite common problem among traditional ad networks. I believe that RTB is actually going to help shed light on these types of practices because of the greater transparency it provides to the advertiser and publisher around reporting.
    As for brand protection that is not a RTB specific problem either. If anything it is easier to control your brand image if you are bidding on URLs instead of buying across a ad network pool of inventory.


  2. The risk described here is not really relevant for RTB but for media buying in general, There are techniques to safeguard such activities. I think this post is to pitch the need for the brand safety technologies. but let’s face it. “who audit the auditers” We are in the need for a standarized auditing solution who is not profiting from the media buying transaction.

  3. @Matt – I agree these problems are not RTB-specific. My point was more around the fact that RTB has been cited by many as a panacea for the challenges faced by advertisers buying from networks. In a rush to embrace the next big thing, I think it’s useful to remember that it leaves many of the problems associated with the last big thing unresolved.

    @BigM – regarding the “who audits the auditors” question, I agree this is a challenge when evaluating the usefulness of third party “point solutions” that provide “exception reports” but no actual transparency. For our part at AdXpose, we want you to trust AND verify – we’ll tell you where the issues lie and show you as well.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here