Last Friday, the 'Wall Street Journal' reported that Google is issuing refunds to advertisers on its platforms after detecting "larger than usual" fraudulent ad clicks. Before we quickly jump to conclusions about the internet giant's credibility, this refund has been initiated by Google proactively; the alarm has been raised by them after discovering that the problem has occurred mainly in the second quarter of this year.
Google has informed several marketers and agency partners about the problem over the past few weeks.
While the digital-first markets of the West are shocked and grappling with this reality, losses of which are estimated to touch $7 billion this year, sections of Indian business media contacted Google India and did not extract any response on its implication in the Indian ad market.
Had it been news of any shortcoming in the television monitoring systems, like the gaping holes pointed about TAM (Television Audience Monitor) in 2008, the advertising industry would have been witnessing heated debates and discussions. But it has been more than a week, and industry leaders do not seem to be travelling or attending any international festivals - why doesn't anyone seem shaken as yet?
There could be multiple reasons. To begin with, it is simply not big enough a problem in India yet, to warrant any substantial concern, for the industry as a whole. For individual spenders however, maybe, yes. And those are very few, as numbers would suggest - out of the approximate Rs 7000 crore digital advertising spends, 90% of which is bought directly and only a miniscule 10% in India is through Programmatic buying - Indian marketers' old-school approach to buying new media has helped them bypass this problem.
For the uninitiated, Programmatic buying allows advertisers to buy audiences rather than buying platforms. If one were to understand this using traditional media analogy - you don't buy the TV channel, but you buy the audience that traverses across different channels and media platforms. Ad tech allows you to gather their data and follow them, and serve them the contextually relevant 'ad' as appropriate.
While Programmatic buying removes all manual processes in digital advertising where algorithms can filter ad impressions combined with consumer usage data, allowing advertisers to specify media budgets and objectives. With this development, the efficacy of Programmatic stands questioned since clients adopted it not only to improve ROI, but to reduce risks as well.
What kind of risks? For assumption's sake, if the relevant audience is surfing porn, the brand could appear there. Now that could be a serious issue with several brands for ethical and compliance reasons. However, in the automated world, one cannot prevent that unless additional technology is deployed to create filters. In the age of empowered and social-media connected consumers, where brand sensitivity related issues are heightened, advertisers have to protect themselves from unsafe, inappropriate or incompatible content.
Another risk is the rise of non-human 'views'. For digital ads to make an impact on consumers, they have to be seen by real people. Bots have been deployed maliciously; they are creating fraudulent impressions for brands that opted for accuracy and accountability in the first place. In the case of the recent ad fraud, it is Google's DSP that detected the bots-related problem.
As mentioned earlier, only big publisher platforms such as, Google and Facebook have deployed sophisticated ad tech to track and prevent such occurrences but majority of other platforms have not made much an investment. So technically speaking, for a large number of advertisers, there is simply no way to figure this out unless the issue is flagged off.
Big league digital advertisers, who can afford it, deploy independent (third-party) tracking platforms to either verify or corroborate the platform's report of fraudulence. Analytics solution providers such as, Integral Ad Science and Oracle's MOAT help clients verify, optimise and analyse the impact of their digital ad spend deployment.
These platforms help clients protect their ad spends - from illegal bot activity, specific page-level frauds and historically fraudulent URLs. Advertisers hire these services to add greater visibility and transparency to their digital advertising efforts. These tracking technologies, however, don't come cheap.
On an average, third-party ad tracking deployment could consume anywhere between 10 to 20% of the total ad spends. In the case of some multi-brand advertisers, that could very well be the total ad spends allocation of a small- or medium-sized brand in their portfolio. This beats the very reason why Programmatic is adopted in the first place - cost effectiveness.
This perhaps explains why the adoption of automation in digital media buying and deployment is slow in India - consequently the recent fraud also hasn't impacted the Indian digital ad landscape.
Even among those Indian companies that have embraced Programmatic, the decisions and deals are managed from their overseas marketing HQs, sparing their counterpart brand custodians in India of all the trouble.
(Hari Krishnan is founder, CultureDrum Ventures, a brand and content consultancy. Previously, he was managing director, Zenith Media India).