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News Analysis 2 Mar 2021 - 3 min read

Groundhog Day: AANA study finds brands, agencies still doing nothing on transparency, as adtech obfuscates

By Brendan Coyne - Editor

A lot of traffic for advertisers to negotiate on road to transparency, and up to 8% of it is bad.

The AANA’s follow up to PwC's UK study on digital advertising transparency finds, despite years of lamentation and regulatory bandwidth, brands and agencies are passing the buck while walled gardens, reticent adtech providers, leaky verification programmes and a patchwork of data make following the money from advertiser to eyeball an auditor's nightmare. Perhaps the ACCC will step in to save the day, eventually. But brands can’t complain if they don’t act.

What you need to know:

  • AANA/MMI study of 120m impressions from three major advertisers finds similar challenges to PwC's UK programmatic supply chain investigation.
  • Brands delegating responsibility to agencies.
  • Agencies struggling to get data from platforms.
  • Adtech providers not willing to play ball.
  • Leaky verification letting bad traffic through with IVT at 4-8%
  • Report lays out practical steps for brands and agencies – will they take them?


Brands may sometimes find they are bidding for the same inventory whilst competing with themselves.

AANA/SMI transparency report

Despite everything, advertisers are still making little or no effort to understand where their digital ad dollars end up, whether anyone saw them, and which parties are taking half of their media budget along the way, according to the AANA.

They are leaving it to agencies, but the agencies are often leaving it to the DSPs and the DSPs can't or won't do it regularly. Compounding the problem is that adtech players don’t or won’t enable transparency, obstructing measurement and reporting at critical junctures of Australia’s $10bn digital media supply chain.

Meanwhile, agencies are not all up to speed with the data sharing platforms, formats and practices that are critical to stand any chance of following spend end-to-end.

Verification programmes are leaky and letting through bad traffic (bots, potentially fraudulent traffic) at levels from 4-8%, found the AANA, which marketwide would represent hundreds of millions of dollars lost.

Across the piste, the data patchwork is so disjointed that only a small fraction of ads can be traced from advertisers through to publisher.

The AANA’s latest transparency report pulls no punches in laying bare those challenges. Based on an investigation conducted by Method Media Intelligence (MMI), it’s themed 'Are we there yet?’ but the question appears largely rhetorical. The industry won't get there by doing nothing.

Not there yet

Based on a study of three large Australian Advertisers, three agencies, five DSPs as well as direct publisher and audience buys, MMI followed some 120m impressions from November 2020 to January 2021. The report’s intent and findings echo a larger programmatic supply chain investigation conducted by PwC and ISBA in the UK.

That study, published in May 2020, found half of ad dollars are absorbed by middlemen before an impression is served, and only 12% of ads could be tracked end-to-end. PwC’s attempt at forensic analysis was repeatedly thwarted by lack of access to useable data: It took nine months for the auditors to get what they needed from the tech vendors involved and there was no easy way to match buy and sell-side IDs.

As they pointed out: that is at the top end of town. The long tail is likely far worse.


Get a move on

The AANA makes practical recommendations to address key issues for brands: reduce the number of parties in their buying chain, pick partners that can interrogate data for transparency and hire capable third party auditors to run the numbers.

These are pretty basic aspects of due diligence – echoing the ACCC’s recent advice for brands.

The AANA/MMI report also makes some technical recommendations around data labelling, reporting and interrogation to better enable advertisers to follow the money.

It specifically suggests buyers use Google’s Ads Data Hub (ADH) for Youtube buys – the only way to get transparency on the platform, per the report. It also warns both brands and agencies to wise up on the different way ads are counted and billed.

Separately, the study spells out one of the key risks posed to brands by header bidding: The same inventory can be found in lots of places – and brands may find they are “bidding for the same inventory whilst competing with themselves”. So they end up unnecessarily wasting budget by bidding up their own prices, a practice some parts of the supply chain have little incentive to curb.

Roadblocks ahead?

The AANA is attempting to provide a roadmap for brands that want to understand where their media budget is being spent play, while mapping it to key areas the ACCC aims to tackle.

But brands have had years to get to grips with digital transparency. Some may now hope that the regulator solves their problems by forcing industry to develop portable data and ID solutions and by mandating independent verification of DSP services.

But some regulatory measures, if carried forward come August, could take years to develop – if they are actually possible from a privacy perspective. And regulators can only enforce new rules if they have the resources.

Meanwhile, without interim measures, the biggest players will increase their dominance and supply chain opacity will continue.

If advertisers remain passive, it’s likely that transparency, data and trust failures will plague them for some years yet. But at least they will know where half their ad dollars are wasted.

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Brendan Coyne


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