10/02/2012 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

The Constant Gardener: Making Programmatic Buying Safe for Brands

Among the hot topics of Advertising Week this year are the huge opportunities and lingering challenges faced by brands as they follow consumers and shift dollars to digital. The technology driving many of these opportunities -- and introducing some of the new challenges -- is programmatic buying, or media buys on real-time-bidding platforms. Addressing these challenges takes insight, a conviction for quality and unwavering diligence. Metaphorically, it takes a constant gardener.

In the world of programmatic buying, ad exchanges are like a garden bed. Just as soil doesn't know the difference between a flower and a weed, ad exchanges do not always distinguish between good and bad inventory. It takes a vigilant gardener to weed out any undesirable elements. Lately, Media6Degrees (m6d) has been doing a lot of gardening.

We are, and intend to remain, one of the most aggressive companies in the exchange ecosystem in rooting out the bad stuff in order to buy only the best impressions for our marketers. We are repeatedly told by our supply partners that nobody takes inventory quality as seriously as we do.

The array of risks confronting digital marketers includes inappropriate context, ad collisions, specious delivery and viewability. We haven't solved them all, but like good gardeners, we have a bead on each of these nasty weeds.

m6d was one of the original subscribers to third-party brand safety services that allow us to turn off sites that do not provide appropriate context for clients like Disney and Allstate. When we see a site that does not pass muster, we block it. This is an important step, but fundamentally a black-list approach -- turning off stuff known to be bad. We recently took the much more aggressive step of turning off all sites until we are reasonably certain they are good. Rather than assume sites are innocent until proven guilty, we assume guilt until we establish innocence. While we don't claim to be perfect, we are confident that we work with the best, most brand safe publishers in the vast exchange ecosystem.

Ad collisions are two or more ads from the same marketer on the same web page. While they can be a positive thing in premium buys (referred to as "roadblocks") they generally detract from performance in programmatic buys. We recently introduced a feature that ensures we serve only one impression per page per campaign. This was a challenging engineering problem because a publisher can put multiple placements from the same page up for auction at the same time, often through multiple exchange partners. Our solution requires geographically dispersed servers to be aware of the actions of all other servers, so that a no-bid decision is rendered when a neighboring server claims inventory on the same page. This bid-locking happens billions of times each day in near real-time. Our "Roadblock Buster" has a patent pending.

Earlier this year, we noticed a seemingly artificial rise in the click-through rates for several of our campaigns -- to greater than one percent, in some cases. We also uncovered a very high overlap of user visits between seemingly unrelated sites. For example, an English language site about women's health shared 80 percent viewership with a site about Chinese movies. In comparison, the maximum overlap for large and related sites like the New York Times and CNN is only 20 percent. We surmised that the high CTR sites with huge overlaps in viewership were likely fraudulent, and suspended buying impressions on those sites.

That was the easy part. The more difficult challenge was how to handle the users. We postulated that most users stumble upon a bad site once, after which they behave normally. Rather than block these users indefinitely, we set out to avoid them while "infected." So we came up with the concept of the Penalty Box. A user who visits a suspicious site enters the Penalty Box, and we suspend bidding on them for a period of time. Once they avoid suspicious behavior for an acceptable period, we treat them like a normal user.

Our fraud protection work is cutting edge and we have filed patents both for our detection methods and our techniques for blocking suspicious users.

The next challenge on the horizon is viewability. This one is complicated, as we have observed that viewability ratings are sometimes inversely related to site quality. As an example, most of the link farm sites (which we avoid) place all of their ads above the fold. They rate high for viewability, but otherwise are undesirable for high quality display campaigns. Our approach is to be cautious in introducing a viewability measure into our bidding system. We have a major initiative on this front, and will be rolling out solutions over the coming months.

What comes of all this constant gardening? Good things, we think. We're committed to delivering the fertile terrain advertisers need to find their best next customers.

Tom Phillips will be addressing these and other topics on the Advertising Week Data Congress Panel on Wednesday, October 3 at the NASDAQ Market Site.