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Programmatic versus publisher-direct online ad buying: What do the data say?

October 25, 2016 | By Tim Bourgeois, Partner—East Coast Catalyst @ChiefDigOfficer

Anyone who’s been buying digital advertising for more than a minute has been faced with the daunting question from marketing and non-marketing executives alike: “So, how much of this advertising is actually legit, anyhow?”

The industry has been hounded by issues relating to viewability, engagement, and outright fraud for the past couple of years, and the general business press regularly covers the subject matter. So the very same executives who authorized TV, print and radio advertising budgets without raising question one only a few years ago – when the “half of my marketing budget is well-spent, but I’m not sure which half” maxim was fully embraced – now regularly engage in forensic assessments of ad buys. Such is the life of the digital marketer.

So it is helpful that companies like Integral Ad Science (though not an entirely objective player in the digital marketing ecosystem) working to keep track of developments via its bi-annual Media Quality Reports.

However, depending on one’s point-of-view, the data can be considered a sign of improving conditions, or confirmation that we marketers knowingly *throw away* 10% or more of our budgets to fraud, deception, and advertising malpractice.

Here’s a look at IAS’s most recent report, which offers an analysis of “hundreds of billions” online display and video ad impressions during the first half of this year:

  • IASfigureConditions Are Improving. Though there continues to be a good deal of waste in the system, the overall state of online advertising is showing signs of improvement. For example, the U.S. market saw a significant drop in “objectionable content” impressions during the first half of 2016 versus the previous period (9.5% versus 14.0%). Most industry experts agree this is due to more sophisticated tools and digital ad buying practices, as one would expect in a growing and evolving industry sector.
  • Buying Direct Has Its Benefits. The incidence of ad fraud when buying advertising direct from publishers is dramatically lower than when buying programmatically (2.2% versus 8.3% in the U.S.), though it’s also typically more expensive, making the equation palatable for most marketers.
  • Viewability & Clutter Are Continuing Concerns. Fewer than half of all display ads – regardless of how purchased – get viewed for more than five seconds, and more than 10% of ad impressions are jammed onto pages with more than four ads on the page. These issues are compounded via mobile devices, which we cited in a recent article on the pros and cons of programmatic as “just a messy consumer experience”.
  • Bigger & Vertical Are Better. Large format, vertically-oriented display ad formats (300×600, 300×1050, 160×600) all tend to have better viewability than their smaller, rectangular and square counterparts – being viewed for more than five seconds about half the time.
  • Global Video Ads Are Best Purchased Direct. Viewability of video via programmatic means are only viewable at a 3-in-10 ratio, versus nearly 7-in-10 via publisher direct. This metric constitutes the biggest relative weakness of programmatic in the study.

While IAS’s analysis of the first half of 2016 has many encouraging findings, it’s also clear that the programmatic marketing industry has plenty of opportunities for improvements in the coming months and years.


BourgeoisTim Bourgeois (@ChiefDigOfficer) is a partner at East Coast Catalyst, a Boston-based digital consulting company specializing in strategic roadmaps, digital marketing audits, and online marketing optimization programs.

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