What Does Transparency Mean?

"A working definition of transparency: “Financial and qualitative data, including the identities and order of all media sellers and data vendors involved in a transaction, provided at an impression level, to the degree that the buyer has legal rights to access.” -Will Luttrell, Amino Payments

Whether buying media through agencies or riding the wave of in-housing, marketers are increasingly demanding to see where their money goes. Media planners want the placement assurance that transparency provides, while procurement insists on transparency for supply path optimization (SPO) to make sure that the brand is getting the best price for its media. Industry groups like the IAB are leaping into the conversation with the additions of sellers.json and SupplyChain Object; and the ANA is actively educating its members about best practices for data collection and analysis.

Ad tech companies have been deluged by transparency-related requests. These range from demands for log level data (LLD) to newer, more robust technologies utilizing cryptography and blockchain. Some ad tech companies have begun to standardize their approaches, offering various data feeds and logs, or integrating directly with transparency vendors.

Ultimately, this will all be a healthy exercise for our digital media ecosystem. Over decades, opaque supply paths have been the canvas on which bad practices have been painted. Transparency is the antidote for everything from illegal activities like bot fraud, to more gray areas like hidden/duplicate fees and other widespread inefficiencies. Simply put: Transparency should help good actors.

Unintended Consequences

But while the move toward a more transparent media marketplace is good, some of the byproducts are not necessarily so. Part of the problem is that “transparency” means something different to different people. These definitions tend to conveniently conform to one’s own best interest and current practices. In fact, every company in advertising claims that they’re already transparent. . . as defined by themselves.

A working definition of transparency: “Financial and qualitative data, including the identities and order of all media sellers and data vendors involved in a transaction, provided at an impression level, to the degree that the buyer has legal rights to access.” Typically, this data is provided in raw log files, but firms now exist that offer the promise of more real-time data, cryptographically certifying each transaction.

Impression level data is a two-edged sword. The same log level data that contains valuable financial transparency may also contain consumer data. Even if it has been culled of obvious personal data like cookie identifiers and email addresses, common logged data like IP Address and User Agent are defined as Personal Data in many jurisdictions and can place a firm in jeopardy of violating privacy laws. Transparency must be controlled in a way that protects consumer privacy.

There also are limits to the data advertisers are entitled to. Many advertisers are shocked when sell side tech platforms refuse to disclose the revenue arrangement between themselves and media owners. Advertisers’ contracts are with buy-side platforms. Publisher contracts are with sell-side platforms. It is up to the publisher and their sell-side side platform whether to disclose how much the publisher was paid. (Of course, the advertiser can refuse to buy from any publisher or exchange that declines to disclose these financials). More important than the amount a publisher was paid, however, is knowing which publisher in fact was paid. The advertiser certainly is entitled to know who was paid with the advertiser’s money.

Bad Actors Leveraging Transparency

Fraudsters love transparency. Like the burglar monitoring a police scanner, fraudsters want to know when they have been caught so they can change tactics. One source of information for fraudsters is impression-level data that tells them exactly which ads were labeled as SIVT vs. human. Thus, the very same data buyers want, if joined with impression-by-impression fraud detection signals, can provide a blueprint to the bad guys about what is and isn’t working. Scammers can use this feedback loop to rapidly improve their tech to avoid future detection. Some critics of CCPA point to this as an unintended consequence of that statute.

Transparency Without a Plan

A person wearing a watch knows the time. A person wearing two watches is never quite sure. Every vendor in the supply path has its own log files, so when data is collected from DSPs, exchanges, verification vendors, data partners and other sources, they frequently don’t match. Every new partner provides a different truth. Even if someone labels these discrepancies as illegitimate, they’ll be left with unsatisfactory post-campaign mitigation like claw-backs or make-goods. These are not the actionable insights marketers are after, so care must be taken to couple transparency with technology and expertise to interpret and utilize the data.

Follow the Money

Whether the business is that of a buyer, seller, or enabling technology, the rising tide of digital media continues to scale new heights, with new opportunities for sustained growth. It’s vital to remember, however, that the massive revenue gains that have characterized digital media for the past 20+ years have mostly gone to the most transparent platforms: those with the least amount of intrigue between buyer and seller. Facebook and Google don’t get 75 cents of every new dollar entering digital just because of their massive scale. They’re winning because buying Google Search or Facebook ads are more transparent. Whoever offers transparency for the open web, CTV, digital outdoor, AR, and the innumerable other opportunities in the coming decade will likewise dominate the future of our industry.

Will Luttrell founded Amino Payments after co-founding Integral AdScience. He is a pioneer in brand safety, fraud detection and viewability.