Advertising Guest Columns
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Harnessing 2020’s media quality lessons for greater publisher gains

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It is understandable that people are eager to move on from the year no one expected, although that doesn’t mean the challenges and the progress made during 2020 should be shelved. As illustrated by recent Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) data — which discovered a 5% growth in ad spend in 2020 — the digital advertising industry learned valuable lessons around flexibility and resilience. 

While publishers are well aware of the disruption to ad budgets and consumer behaviour in 2020, it’s important that we delve into the impact of media quality to identify the specific trends that are likely to keep impacting the digital ecosystem in the coming months. 

To maximise yield in 2021 and beyond, it’s vital that we understand the recent changes in brand risk, ad fraud and viewability and what this means for ongoing monetisation strategy; and more specifically, how publishers can continue to maximise yield.

Covid-19 wasn’t the only increased risk

Aside from tightened advertising purse strings, a big driver for increased strain on publisher income was greater concern around online brand safety, as indicated by IAS’s latest Media Quality Report.

Specifically, the research findings discovered that risk for UK publisher direct inventory climbed across environments and categories in H2 2020, in line with trends on programmatic media quality, too. Desktop web display reached 4.8% while desktop video and mobile display risk also grew, up 0.7 and 1.3 percentage points year-over-year respectively. Total numbers of risky ad impressions that fall under the umbrella of violent, adult and hate speech content also experienced sizeable increases; with six in ten high-risk UK impressions related to content associated with illegal drugs, violence, and alcohol across both programmatic and publisher direct purchases.

It’s important to recognise that the transformation in digital is not just resulting from pandemic-related disruption. From the buy side, recognition of heightened risk is set to drive even closer media scrutiny. For sellers, securing revenue will therefore rely on efficient content assessment, based on both safety and suitability. In particular, the publishers able to offer detailed classification that gives buyers the capacity to evaluate ad placements in line with their specific offerings, views, and values will see the richest long-term rewards.

In 2021, we are seeing industry growth through boosted media spend. Advertisers have increased in confidence in digital campaigns since the pandemic through strength in ecommerce and ad spend migrated from alternative environments. Precise brand safety and brand suitability tools have moved advertisers away from keyword-only approaches, ensuring each brand’s custom metrics are aligned with their values, unlocking maximum publisher inventory. 

Technology scores against ad fraud

Where the money flows, fraudsters tend to follow; and digital’s substantial share of ad investment makes it a prime target. IAS analysis, however, highlights the major difference robust defences can make in fending off the fraudsters. Although ad spend remained high — reaching £16.47 billion during calendar year 2020 — rates for publisher direct inventory optimised against fraud improved; with the UK average coming in at 0.5%, below H2 2019 levels of 0.6%.

These results highlight that the use of sophisticated technology is playing a vital role in minimising ad fraud, reducing both publisher direct desktop display and mobile web video by 0.1 percentage points each and lowering mobile web display fraud rates by 0.3 percentage points year-over-year. Yet the need for vigilance remains. The only area to see a rise in ad fraud includes desktop video, which is attracting more interest with fraudsters due to the increasing audience engagement that’s fuelling escalated spend. Additionally, it’s worth noting that, despite welcome declines in non-optimised fraud, rates were still 11 times higher than well-protected inventory, hitting 8.6% globally.

Sights must stay set on boosting viewability

Online content consumption increased exponentially, doubling in the past year alone. Overall, the UK maintained its edge in global viewability rankings. In fact, the star performer was mobile-app display’s 4.7 percentage point increase in H2 2020, which was likely driven by  broader adoption of the IAB Measurement Software Development Kit (OM SDK). 

Amid soaring appetite for digital entertainment and information, time-in-view also saw sustained growth. Additional standouts included growth in publisher direct desktop display time-in-view to 20.9 seconds, with mobile web display close behind at 16.09 seconds; representing annual increases of 0.49 seconds and 0.69 seconds, respectively. 

Looking ahead, the mission to ensure that ads can be seen by relevant audiences in safe and suitable environments must remain a top priority for the entire advertising ecosystem. Understanding high points of viewability and reinforcing efforts to continually improve levels across formats will place media owners in a stronger position to accurately value their inventory and build firmer, more mutually beneficial ties with advertisers.

But maximising return on investment for advertisers and publishers in digital ad is an industry-wide team effort. In an age of programmatic buying and advertisers seeking efficient buys, smartly packaged premium inventory means that publishers can attract the highest-bidding advertisers. By accurately categorising content, publishers can package their content to best align with an advertiser’s specific brand safety and suitability requirements.

Tempting as it might be to consign 2020 to the history books, there are valuable lessons to take away. Over the past year, significant turmoil has transformed the digital media landscape, changing audience habits and transforming the way advertisers allocate their budgets and perceive online media. By utilising insights about the past and current state of media quality, publishers are able to not only ensure higher gains, but also ensure future-proof monetisation models for enduring success in the post-pandemic world.

Paul Nasse
Managing Director, Northern Europe, Integral Ad Science (IAS)

Integral Ad Science (IAS) is a global leader in digital ad verification, ensuring that ads are viewable by real people in safe and suitable environments. IAS’s mission is to be the global benchmark for trust and transparency in digital media quality for the world’s leading brands, publishers and platforms. Founded in 2009 and headquartered in New York, IAS works with thousands of top advertisers and premium publishers worldwide. IAS is part of the Vista Equity Partners portfolio of companies. For more information, visit