After reading the news about the reactions to the ANA transparency audit – including GroupM’s announcement that they’re only going to buy from inclusion lists and the overall focus on curated publisher pools to get quality over quantity – I’ve started to wonder whether these are real changes, or if we’re just looking at another bit of temporary window dressing to make marketers feel better about where they’re spending their dollars. The answer could dictate the structure of the marketplace and the landscape of ad tech for years to come.
On the surface, the idea of curated publisher pools seems sound, because it’s going to be the agencies (or the DSPs, like The Trade Desk) selecting the publishers, rather than the SSPs. In theory, that means that these marketplaces will only include reputable publishers, not MFA sites (whatever that means), to the benefit of advertisers and publishers alike: media buyers lose access to massive scale if they switch to publisher curation, but they get better data in return, while the reduction in the size of the market should force up rates, benefiting publishers.
However, the concept seems less firm when you dig deeper. That “better data” I mentioned in the last paragraph is pretty nebulous, especially when you frame it in terms of what advertisers actually want: the confirmation that their dollars will be spent on advertising only to users who are going to buy their products and services. Does knowing for sure that the supply chain ends where you expect get you (or your client) closer to that goal? Are you going to be able to translate the data you have available to you into quality – “right publisher” versus “wrong publisher” – when putting together your publisher lists?
There’s also the problem of scale: thanks to over a decade of Big Data, the problem is not the amount data available, but how to interpret it. In these complex decisions, agencies are trying to model user behavior to match a qualitative ideal and use that model to generate a list of acceptable websites. Whether those decisions then translate into sufficient scale (both in terms of number of impressions and their cost) to meet campaign goals over time seems like an open question.
Then there’s the incentive structure. The amount of money involved in digital advertising has always been a siren call for exploitation (or innovation, depending on your viewpoint), creating loopholes/opportunities that stick around until they come to light, kicking off a cycle of outrage, standards creation, and reform. In the past, those moments of reform have spawned a host of sub-industries dedicated to doing one specific thing (viewability measurement, ad blocking, fraud protection, private marketplaces, inventory aggregation and resale, etc.) that close the loophole but create more opportunities. Why should curated publisher pools be any different?
The best argument for the difference of curated publisher pools I’ve seen so far is intertwined with the long-awaited end of third-party user identification: once third-party cookies disappear at the end of 2024, most of the money will go to the small percentage of sites with first-party data. That will lead to a long-term reduction in the size of the market, shifting the paradigm to smaller campaigns that will support the use of curated publisher pools.
However, I see a flaw with this reasoning: setting up first-party data collection isn’t that hard to do – and as a result, it definitely isn’t an indicator of quality. Throw in the reduction in scale from relying entirely on a smaller group of publishers and the accompanying rise in rates that seems likely to happen as more agencies adopt the curated publisher pool model and any site with first-party data is going to start looking attractive to a media buyer with large budgets and limited time. Over the long term, agencies could reduce their vetting standards or look outside of their pools to meet their needs, undercutting the whole ideal. In other words, curated publisher pools seem more and more like a temporary fix that won’t change the realities of digital advertising.