Zirconium: The Holdco You’ve Never Heard Of

The slippery nature of online advertising gets better (or worse) all the time. The latest comes from Confiant’s CTO, Jerome Dangu. Turns out there’s a fake agency holdco of sorts, with 28 fake ad agencies under the Zirconium umbrella.

They were responsible for some, but definitely not all, of the redirect malvertising seen in 2017. If you read Mr. Dangu’s article, you’ll see that the “agency” websites improved in quality through the year. However, when I went to one of the fake agency websites, it was instantly obvious that it was bogus.

My questions of the ad exchanges and ad tech in general: Who’s checking things over there? Even a monkey could tell that these “agencies” were fake and should be kept away.

Does anybody have pride in their workmanship any more?

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Bet Your Ads Aren’t Loading

Back in the early aughts, I remember getting worked up about losing around 5% of the impressions I paid for.

In other words, I paid for 100 ads and could only see 95 in the server logs. The usual explanation was plausible–before the ad was rendered, the viewer left the site. (I still didn’t understand why I should pay for the 5 missed impressions, but that’s another discussion.)

The problem was that I didn’t know if 5% was reasonable. What if site A had 3% missing ads and site B had 11%. What did that mean? If the SAC was $50 on site A and $47 on site B, how happy should I be? Could we get the un-served rate from 11% to 3% and yield a few more $47 SAC acquisitions? It made me crazy and some of my marketing analysis friends can vouch for my constant questions.

Ahh, it makes me long for the good old days. It turns out that my pre-programmatic problem was nothing. Bennett Rosenblatt at Uber did an interesting piece of analysis, detailed here at AdExchanger. The conclusion?

If you assume your ads are actually being served, you’re a chump.

He said it in a nicer way. But he detailed a set of circumstances where:

  • The publishers misrepresent the type of ad to yield higher CPM
  • The ad served mismatched the inventory, causing the ad to fail to load
  • The SSPs had no incentive to check the inventory they were representing for sale
  • The ad exchanges also didn’t bother to check the inventory on offer

The advertiser is, of course, left holding the bag and paying for the incompetence and malfeasance. Mr. Rosenblatt provides some good recommendations on what to look for.

My recommendation is, at your Monday 8 am meeting, discuss load rates (impressions served/bids won) at the publisher/audience/ad exchange/SSP level.

Please note the high level of granularity. It will take some time to do this line-by-line. Fire up the coffee pot first.

If your agency is buying the same publisher inventory at multiple exchanges, as resold by various SSPs, you should ask why. Secondly, if there’s any statistically significant variation in load rate, you should demand specific answers. (Some if it will be due to the ad exchange running bogus inventory, of course.)

Be prepared for a long slog with your agency and marketing teams. They won’t like it one bit. But looking into your supply chain more closely will pay off.

Takeaway: Don’t assume that winning a bid means the ad runs. Examine your supply chain carefully every morning. Be ruthless when asking questions–it’s your money. And win.

P.S. Here’s more on source-level triage and de-averaging your media buy, both good guides to help you develop a process to address the load rate problem.

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Immigrants and Education

“Як школа?”is something asked repeatedly of me by my grandparents growing up. The question–“how’s school?”–wasn’t just about whether I was getting A’s. Although the grade was important, the question really was “are you learning?”

I found myself thinking about that question yesterday when speaking to our son. He’s studying abroad this semester, and talking about his experiences. The questions he gets asked are both funny and sad. “Do you have a gun?” and “has your country gone crazy?” are two frequent ones. Questions that aren’t asked of citizens of, say, Norway.

I think we’re in the grip of a streak of anti-intellectualism the likes of which we haven’t seen since maybe Andrew Jackson. The United States has always had a little anti-education bent since our founding. Going back to the days of Horatio Alger and “go west, young man,” as a nation we’ve preferred bootstraps to books. We tend to deride intellectuals as living in ivory towers and being unable to survive in the “real” world.

What I find interesting is that it appears immigrants value education more than any other group. My Ukrainian immigrant grandparents taught me respect for those that were educated. And they worked hard to make sure that their children and grandchildren received the education they never got.

Importantly, they never asked what I was leaning at college. Rather, they wanted to know was I learning. Big difference. The anti-intellectuals paint a bizarre picture of universities stuffing young people with useless information from a biased (i.e. not their) point of view. Of course, nothing is further from the truth.

College, done properly, is about learning how to teach yourself. The experiences in and out of the classroom are intended to teach the methodologies (and there is always more that one way to skin the proverbial cat) and allow practice of those methods. Is there a guarantee that you’ll not be a fool, even if you have a degree from a very fine, the best, school? No. But that’s not the fault of the academy.

Is college for everybody? Of course not. I know highly-educated people that do not have degrees and some educated fools with PhDs. One can become educated in many ways. The key is the attitude–hard work, the willingness to question, and the openness to new and frightening ideas.

Those sound like the skills possessed by immigrants who want a better shot here. If I had to guess, I’d think that certain anti-intellectual real estate grifters-turned reality TV stars-turned politicians are actually scared of those immigrants driving our cabs and cleaning our hotel rooms in the hope that their kids might become educated.

As for my neighbor? I’ll take an immigrant from a sh!thole country over a know-nothing living in a tacky, nouveau riche palace to greed any day.

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Who’s Hurt by Facebook Changes? Look at TAC Ratio.

The Verge’s Silicon Valley editor, Casey Newton, tweeted on Thursday:

So many publishers think they have audiences, when what they really have is traffic. I think we’re about to find out who has an audience.

To find out who has what, look to their financials. The higher the TAC (traffic acquisition cost) to ad revenue ratio, the more it’s just a site with ads, as opposed to being a real publisher. Facebook feed changes hurt the former far more than the latter.

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Publisher Advice From a Buyer

Dr. Augustine Fou wrote a brilliant article yesterday, Five Unintended Consequences, Counter-intuitive Outcomes that Publishers May Not Have Thought Of,  that got me thinking about the advice I’d give publishers as a buyer. Here they are:

  • Remove all the tracking widgets from your site. That Facebook “Like” button only serves to exfiltrate your valuable data to an entity that doesn’t have your best interests at heart. If you’ve got a valuable audience, why would you want to help the ad tech industry which promises “I can find the same and bigger audience over here for $2 CPM, so don’t buy from the publisher?” Sticking your own head in the noose is never a good idea.
  • Prevent your SSP from re-selling your inventory, period. It’s being re-sold to who-knows-who, contrary to your interests by your “partners” (actually “vendors”). They’re placing malvertising on your site, colluding with those spoofing your identity and laughing all the way to the bank.
  • Get rid of the crap. A catch-all, I know, but that’s the content widgets, native advertising, tricky ad units, etc. I’m willing to pay a premium for cherry media, but your site has to look premium to command a premium.
  • Sell more direct. I’m a dinosaur, I get it. But it creates a virtuous cycle–as you only sell to quality advertisers, quality begets quality. Rates go up.

By the way, everything I suggested above is not only good for publishers, it’s good for advertisers. We need access to media to succeed. We’re willing to pay for results. We’re sick of paying for bots and ad tech.

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The Finish Line in the Race to the Bottom

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 8.29.14 AMLast night, I was doing some analysis of a premium publisher’s site. I encountered RPM optimization in all its glory. And it made me sad and sick.

The malvertising at left attempts to:

  • Hijack browser settings
  • Encourage installation of a malware browser extension

The publisher’s ads.txt file indicated only two authorized sellers of inventory, one well-known and generally trusted.

So how did this obvious lousy ad get on the site? Did one of the authorized sellers resell inventory that ended up on some sketchy ad network? If so, is the publisher aware of it?

Who was using the “turn and cough” method of vetting advertisers, if any vetting was done at all?

Why run 50+ tracking pixels if they can’t even help keep stuff like this off the site? And when you see ads like this, you wonder exactly what the pixels are doing (I didn’t even recognize all the pixels that Ghostery showed me.)

Takeaway: This is what eking out every penny of RPM from your inventory looks like. This is optimization. This is how winning in the race to the bottom looks from the publisher side. This is what “platforms” are doing to our premium publishers. This is ad tech.

Posted in Data, digital marketing, Media, Privacy, Rants, Security, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mad Men Was Better

Mad_Men_season_5_cast_photoYou used to pay your ad agency a 15% commission back in the day. You groused about the high fees, the bad or non-existent data about campaign performance and wondered why you had to pay for those fancy Madison Ave offices that were far better than your digs in Kenosha.

But your agency generally at least had your back. There was enough margin there to run and build a business. Relationships tended to be long, and at the CEO level. Along the way, great brands and campaigns got created. Continue reading

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Improve Ad Performance With Slow, Deep, Breathing

Screen Shot 2018-01-08 at 10.02.21 PMMy mission for 2018 is to help marketers improve their digital marketing performance. It’s a mess out there. The latest example? News UK (publisher of The Sun and Times of London) finds that SSPs were still offering their inventory for sale after News UK turned off the supply. Over 2.9 million bids per hour were being made on totally fake inventory.

Still feeling good about your programmatic buys? As Dr. Augustine Fou, the cybersecurity and ad fraud researcher pointed out yesterday, there’s a lot of questions your CEO, CFO, and procurement department will ask of you to “defend the spend.” You wouldn’t want to be bidding on fake inventory and have to defend why you wasted corporate resources on it, would you? Continue reading

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Ad Blockers: Common Sense

With the recent news of the Spectre and Meltdown CPU flaws, it’s more important than ever that you do a few things:

  1. Install ad blockers (do your homework first* [update: see how-to below]!)
  2. Turn on DNT (for whatever that’s worth)
  3. Refuse to accept third party cookies
  4. Use a good VPN

The reason is that adtech has so corrupted the digital advertising ecosystem that publishers aren’t even sure what ads are running programmatically on their sites. “Partner” SSPs are committing fraud against their own clients.

In order to be safe, you have to opt out of digital advertising.

* Thanks to Don Marti for this EFF link to check that the ad blocker you’re contemplating is doing what it purports to do.

Posted in Data, digital marketing, fraud, Media, Privacy, Security | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Happy 2018! AdTech Surveillance Edition

Screen Shot 2018-01-02 at 11.02.29 AMHow would you like it if somebody was standing over your shoulder jotting down your user ID (and who knows what else) as you were logging into sites, and then sharing the information with–well, it could be anybody?

Thought so. Yet it’s happening today via AdTech surveillance firms OnAudience and Adthink (via their AudienceInsights “product”). These two companies inject malware via a script into sites that you visit, and harvest information that your browser password manager fills in. Here’s the original research as well as two recent articles in The Hacker News and The Verge.

Continue reading

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