For Brand.net, Quality is more than an Undertone.

Catching up on my inbox, I noticed an interesting article from Undertone’s Alan Schanzer last week on AdExchanger.  Credit to Mr. Schanzer for trying to help media buyers differentiate between networks; it’s a crowded market with lots of overlapping claims and capabilities.  Unintentionally, however, his article does more to clarify how little first generation ad networks can do to maintain media quality and protect clients’ brands than it does to provide useful advice for the media buying community.

Mr. Schanzer claims that, “when selecting a network, business practice transparency is far more important than site transparency” and focuses the reader on two bad business practices that site transparency does not prevent:  URL padding and daisy chaining.   He’s correct of course that site transparency doesn’t address either issue.  But it’s not exactly news that lying about site breadth or buying in a completely uncontrolled manner are bad business practices.  If avoiding them is even enough to be table stakes then it’s a low limit game.  Sophisticated buyers demand (and get) a lot more from their most important partners, and have for years.

Mr. Schanzer is 100% correct that, “a site list alone will not protect your brand”.  But he doesn’t get down to the real threat to your brand:  objectionable content.  Nor does he discuss the fact that objectionable content is not just a site-level (publisher) problem, it is a page-level problem (i.e., there are pages on the very best publisher sites that have objectionable content, which can arise in an instant by way of user generated comments) and because it is a page-level problem it takes serious technology to solve.  That’s why Brand.net has invested millions of dollars over the last 18 months in our pioneering page-level filtering platform, SafeScreen, which launched in Q109.  That’s also why I wrote a detailed article for iMedia in September on the criticality of ensuring quality at the page-level and posted a more recent follow-up that discusses some major problems with emerging 3rd party technologies that claim to address this issue.

Having said all of that, I am surprised that late in 2009 Mr. Schanzer would want to draw attention to the weakness of a site-based approach to managing quality.  Particularly when Undertone’s quality “guarantee” is framed 100% in terms of site selection.  Read it carefully.  Undertone does not guarantee that it will keep clients’ ads away from objectionable content.  It merely guarantees that clients’ ads won’t run on a site that is not certified as an Undertone Quality Publisher (UQP).  This commitment is almost meaningless because (at least on this page) UQP is undefined outside of a few vague criteria.  As written, Undertone could call a “professionally produced and aesthetically desirable” porn site an UQP and not payout under the “guarantee”.

Of course Undertone would not act in such bad faith, but by framing its quality “guarantee” in terms of site selection and saying nothing about page-level quality, it reveals either a fundamental misunderstanding of the key quality issue that sophisticated media buyers are focusing on today, or the lack of technology required to deliver a best in class solution. It’s pretty clear it’s the latter, because at the bottom of the same page the fine print specifically and explicitly carves out a safe harbor for ads that end up next to objectionable content on pages of UQPs.  In other words, Undertone is saying that if they place your high end beauty, food product or premium diaper ad next to the F-word (or worse) in a user comment that appears on a top women’s site, they’ve successfully completed their job as your media partner.  At Brand.net we certainly wouldn’t want to try to explain that to one of our customers and SafeScreen means we won’t have to.

I propose a New Year’s Resolution for the industry:  let’s elevate the dialog from trading marketing claims of little or no practical utility to active discussion and execution of the cutting edge solutions that sophisticated clients demand and deserve.

About Andy Atherton
I am currently an SVP at AppNexus. I previously spent four years as COO and cofounder of Brand.net, a pioneer in programmatic reserve technology and leading digital media buying solution for top brands. Prior to Brand.net, I was Vice President of Pricing and Yield Management for Yahoo!, responsible for maximizing monetization of a global portfolio of display inventory worth $2B annually. Beginning in 2002, I created, developed and globalized Yahoo’s PYM function over a period of five years. Prior to Yahoo!, I was president and cofounder of Optivo, a venture-backed start-up that developed price optimization software for e-commerce retailers. More on LinkedIn...

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