The programmatic ad industry’s use of personal data has long been shrouded in the sort of unfathomable mystery that would make a David Lynch film seem easy to understand but such shenanigans are also covering up hundreds of millions of pounds in hidden costs, haphazard measurement and woeful accountability.
So says a damning report into the sector by client body ISBA, carried out by PwC. The Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study collected data from 15 advertisers, eight agencies, five demand side platforms (DSPs), six supply side platforms (SSPs) and 12 publishers for the study, accounting for approximately £100m of UK programmatic media spend.
It reveals that only 32 million (12%) of 267 million ad impressions served on websites – and paid for by brands – can be accounted for; the vast majority, 235 million (88%), cannot be mapped due to low data quality, and different measuring systems, from various players in the ecosystem.
From those ads that were matched, on average, nearly a sixth (15%) of the money spent on these ads is lost in the system. This “unknown delta” represents money that is spent on programmatic ads but with no proof they have ever been delivered, let alone viewed.
In fact, website owners receive just 51% of advertiser spend, with the remainder being swallowed up by convoluted fee structures and ad fraud. Within that, one-third of supply chain costs were unattributed.
PwC said there was a lack of understanding and consistency among the adtech suppliers, particularly data storage, uniformity and legal data sharing. The Information Commissioner’s Office is already under pressure to come down hard on these practices and is even facing the prospect of a judicial review due to its inaction.
ISBA said it will now immediately set up a cross-industry task force that will begin work on “studying the causes of the unknown delta”.
Director general Phil Smith said: “It is the first time anywhere in the world that an attempt has been made to map a system which is not capable of being audited. This process has been led by our members, advertisers who proactively sought to understand a problem and find a way forward.
“The challenge now is for industry to come together to drive industry standards and create transparent supply chains, to allow companies and consumers to benefit properly from online advertising.”
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