Stephen Dolan, managing director, APAC, Integral Ad Science (IAS), a digital ad verification services company, is bullish on the company’s expansion efforts in the Asia Pacific market. India is a big performance driven market and the sort of clients which are sort of very pushy about getting a lead transaction using digital right.
In the past, Dolan has helped establish numerous US-based advertising and technology companies in Asia, including aQuantive and DoubleClick. He was Facebook’s first employee in Asia and established their operations in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Prior to Facebook, Dolan managed Microsoft Advertising’s sales efforts in Asia. In an interaction with Campaign India, Dolan talks about the verification ecosystem and how companies across the world are embracing it wholeheartedly to make a difference in the rapidly changing environment.
What are some of the leading companies in the world doing to stay ahead in challenging times?
One of the things to admire about those companies is the constant innovation. It's a trait of all large multinational companies, even though sometimes they can be viewed as being very slow to react. Most of these large companies are finding ways to innovate, constantly keep up and be ultra-competitive. If you look at Unilever and P&G, they've brought that innovation to their media buying in a way that has really changed the way media is bought and sold across the world.
In these rapidly changing times, what would you perceive as a danger?
I would definitely say that not embracing that innovation and standing still, particularly when it comes to media buying and marketing is a clear sign of danger. We have an incredibly dynamic and fast paced, changing environment. And if you're not thinking about how to stay ahead of that, that's probably the biggest danger. Like pretty much every client that we work with is constantly pushing us and pushing all of their vendors to help them innovate and stay ahead of their competitors. If you're not sitting down quite regularly and thinking about how that innovation plays out for you, then that's a big danger.
What are the changes brought about by transparency in the digital medium?
We have got to a place in digital media, where every single major purchaser of digital media uses verification globally. The economic benefits of this exercise to the advertiser is undeniable. We've seen a major change within the buyer’s side, to the way that publishers present their inventory the way that they think about where they put the ads on the page. You know, all of those things have changed dramatically in the last five years.
And so the way that practically how that plays out, is that we very often see in trading agreements between a customer and a publisher, that verification is in there and agreed upon well and truly upfront, before anything's possible. So, when everyone knows what the playing field is, like publishers now know that when they go to Unilever, Procter and Gamble, they already know what their expectations are in terms of verification. And that's true for any good seller will know what their customers are looking to buy. And verification is black and white. They'll know customers expectations about a viewability percentage. They'll also have a good idea about the brand vulnerabilities in terms of brand safety and to what content they're willing to appear on what they're not. So, it's where transparency comes into the equation, because if the buyer and seller are completely clear and up to date about what the landscape is, it becomes a faster way to be able to get to a place where both sides are happy.
How has the process of verification affected agency margins? Have margins taken a beating in the post-verification world?
I wouldn't agree that agency margins are taking a beating, because the verification process gives the agencies a much greater opportunity to be strategic, because viewability has become a really large part of verification and that enables agencies to solve the customers ROI in a different way. I have been in digital media for over 20 years, and one of the saddest parts about it is we wedged ourselves into a corner with click-through. It's bad for everybody. There's nothing that would erode margins more than just having an oversimplified metric that is declining. It's horrible.
So to introduce some more sophistication, that allows a lot more customisation for every single client for every single brand is much more compelling and allows the agency to be able to bring some real brainpower and strategy to the client relationship. And that's where agencies might get money. You know, it doesn't matter whether it's creative strategy or media -- that's where they can bring real value.
On this point of viewability, there are different metrics across the world on what defines viewability. Is there a consensus emerging on that front?
We work with the IAB to put to produce a base standard. But there are clients that have decided through a great deal of research and a great deal of work understanding exactly what drives their business. They have different standards and higher standards for viewability. And that's where every client needs to get to. Is the starting point just to say that 50 per cent of the ad was actually available to be viewed for more than a second? So, you know, it's a really good way to improve viewable inventory quickly. But we've seen a significant uplift that's being driven by clients asking for a higher standard. And that's where you'll see the variances.
Coming to the topic about ad fraud, the noose is tightening, but at the same time, have different kinds of evasion tactics also emerged on the scene? What are the red flags that marketers should watch out for?
Not having any protection, not having any monitoring of fraud is in itself a red flag. Fraud is an ever changing threat. And just because you think you've got it figured out today is no guarantee that you'll be okay tomorrow.
There are some very clever people behind the fraud and they're always trying to see how the various technologies are figuring out what they're doing. So they're constantly stepping up changing the way that they operate using different tactics. Thinking that you have identified some source of fraud and protecting yourself against it just means that the perpetrators are going off and doing something different. So, it's the one challenge that we have as an industry and so it's a positive and a negative. Detecting and figuring out how to stop fraud from getting in your campaigns is going to be very difficult. I mean, we see a billion ads every day. So with that comes an enormous amount of data. And we don't talk a lot about how we detect fraud. But what I can tell you is that the primary question we're always trying to answer is, what's the difference between human browsing and a non-human browser? We've got an incredibly rigorous and robust model that tells us how humans navigate and spend time on the internet. That's relatively predictable.
We are also seeing a lot of advertising companies pick up stakes in ad verification start-ups. Would this be a conflict of interest?
It would ultimately be up to the customer to determine if they believe that's a conflict. I'd always put that back on the customer and what they're comfortable with.
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