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Could blockchain help combat Mideast digital ad fraud?

Blockchain technology could help to create a more even playing field for the much manipulated digital advertising industry. (Reuters)
LONDON: “Blockchain will completely change programmatic digital advertising,” asserts Daniel Gouldman, co-founder of Ternio, a blockchain technology for the digital advertising industry.
He is discussing programmatic advertising and the issue of transparency — an enduring issue for the industry and especially so in the Middle East.
“Let me paint a picture,” he said. “If blockchain technology is able to help save anywhere from 5 to 10 percent for advertisers, every single dollar spent on digital advertising is going to migrate to blockchain-based advertising. I think (the savings) are going to be much more than that, but that’s all it would take.
“As soon as that happens it would be completely negligent behavior for a brand or ad agency to leave that kind of money on the table, and eventually anyone who doesn’t embrace it either won’t be able to be competitive or their customers will spend their money with those who can get better results. It all comes down to ROI (return on investment). Every dollar transacted in digital ads will be transacted on blockchain. Period.”
Programmatic advertising — essentially the automated purchasing of digital ads — has suffered a lengthy run of bad publicity. From concerns over brand safety and ad fraud, to misleading ad reach measurement, the technology once heralded as the future of digital advertising has taken a battering.
At the heart of the issue are transparency and trust. Even the most ardent believers in programmatic believe it needs to undergo a clean-up, with Gouldman stating that an estimated $50 million a day is lost globally from mostly criminal behavior in the digital advertising industry.
“The ad industry has for sometime had a problem with where your ad appears, if it appears at all, if a human or a bot is viewing it, or some click farm out of Asia is simply delivering those numbers,” said Jonathan Oliver, global chief creative officer at adtech start-up Unlockd.
“It is suggested that over a third of all digital traffic is not human but some type of bot, so as a rule of thumb we could suggest that at least a third of a brand’s digital marketing budget may also be somewhat less than authentic.”
It is a global issue that many are trying to solve and also ties in to other concerns over transparency and the practices of media agencies.
Marc Pritchard, global marketing and brand building officer at Procter & Gamble, has been effusive in his condemnation of media agency rebates and arbitrage, while Keith Weed, Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer, has stated that agencies must adhere to his three V’s — viewability, value and verification.
“If we don’t solve these issues then this opaqueness will be like a cancer eating the advertising industry,” said Oliver.
Which is where blockchain — a decentralized unhackable database that many believe can help solve the problems facing programmatic — comes in. Almost like a global spreadsheet that runs on millions of computers, it provides a way to record and transfer data that is transparent, safe and auditable.
Tej Desai, strategy lead at Dubai-based media agency BPG Maxus, believes blockchain can “play a crucial role in addressing the current top-of-mind issues over trust, safety and the pursuit of transparency in online media.” It is, he adds, required to “reinstate the marketing industry’s faith in the effectiveness of digital advertising.”
“Programmatic’s endeavor to deliver large scale at low prices has brought to the forefront the tension between scale and vetted quality and transparency,” said Desai. “Lately we have witnessed several multinational corporations pulling back on programmatic with little decline for their businesses, adding a greater sense of urgency to addressing the issue.
“The principles of blockchain can essentially help monitor and govern budget spend, and thereby help advertisers to track investment from the initial transfer of media budget to the final release of the creative with the media owner. This can totally address the current issue of lack of transparency — avoiding overcharging and under performance.”
To date there has been limited movement with regards to blockchain technology available to the advertising industry, but that is changing. Ternio is one of a handful of companies set to launch this year, while others are in the process of trialling their products. In Asia, for example, Mindshare has partnered with blockchain firm Zilliqa to test whether the company’s blockchain protocol can be used to address the challenges plaguing programmatic.
“There are several different companies right now that are using or testing blockchain to prevent fraud in digital advertising, not least of which is IBM’s announced partnership with Unilever on this very issue,” adds Gouldman.
“Blockchain is going to allow for us to track every single intermediary in the supply chain and that is going to prove particularly valuable to all of those who provide value within the supply chain itself. Transparency is such a basic request in theory, but in practice the execution has been horrible.”
Interestingly, Dubai also plans to be the first blockchain-powered government, with blockchain part of the Dubai 10X initiative.
“Since blockchain is open source, anyone can see the underlying code and what’s going on,” said Desai. “It’s an immutable, unhackable distributed database of digital assets. It is designed to store information in a way that makes it virtually impossible to add, remove or change data without being detected by other users. In this idea of distributed database, trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code rather than a powerful institution that does the authentication and settlement.
Thus this technology has the ability to make the organizations that use it transparent, democratic, decentralized, efficient, and secure … something our industry is currently longing for.”