Study Finds Half of RTB Auction Video Buys Are Bogus

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Some 55% of video media placements purchased by 18 leading brands over three months were fraudulent, according to Clearstream.

Buying video media in RTB auctions is like being a contestant on Let's Make a Deal, says Brian Mandelbaum, founder of video verification company Clearstream. “You paid a $15 CPM, and you own the inventory, and they open the door and you can get a Lexus or a guy in a chicken suit,” he says. “That's what's going on. You don't know what's behind that door.”

Clearstream analyzed 25 campaigns from 18 brands that were spending on video, tracking some 3 billion transactions during September, October, and November 2014. More than half (55%) of the spots bought at auction were identified by Clearstream as misrepresented inventory based on the specifications set down by buyers. What's more, the problem worsened each month. Bad inventory made up 44% of RTB buys in September, 58% in October, and 63% in November.

For brands and their agencies, auction buys placed via supply-side platforms put them in the unaccustomed role of owning the media. “You make a buy and then you realize after the fact that the video was served into a player that was too small or was below the fold,” Mandelbaum says. “But you bought the inventory and you have to serve the ad. Brands have to ask themselves what they need to do when they find themselves on the other side of the business, especially when CPMs are at $15 and they're hemorrhaging cash.”

The viewability issue for video is most acute. In July the Media Ratings Council (MRC) issued new standards holding that display ads can be considered viewed if at least 50% of the pixels are viewable for one second. With video, it's two seconds, but that standard belittles the potential that video holds for advertisers, Mandelbaum maintains. “If you walk away from a TV set, there's no way for an advertiser to know, but those 30 seconds of a video are all measurable. If you have tabbed away, we can measure it.”

This month the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) issued a position paper saying that 100% viewability measurement is not yet possible and recommends 70% as a threshold for buyers and sellers of media in 2015, a “year of transition.” If a campaign does not achieve the 70% viewability threshold for measured impressions, the IAB paper holds, publishers should be willing to make good with additional viewable impressions until the threshold is met.

“The MRC said it best—100% is currently unreasonable,” says IAB President and CEO Randall Rothenberg. “Why? Because, different ad units, browsers, ad placements, vendors, and measurement methodologies yield wildly different viewability numbers.”

That's all well and good, but Mandelbaum insists that brands have to take hold of the reins on this issue to make sure they're getting what they pay for. “When you're on the other side of that auction, you own that impression, and you need to know if that impression was not exactly what it was characterized to be,” he says. “Over half the time, in our study, no impression was even served.”


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