Floors are not Fraud

Hi all.  I have been thinking about cracking my knuckles and getting back to the literary salt mine for a while now and I saw an article yesterday that just I couldn’t resist.

Right off the bat, the headline “Are Artificial Price Floors The Next Iteration Of Ad Fraud?” almost audibly screamed Betteridge’s Law. (OK, I had to Google the name, but I swear I remembered there was such a thing).  So, in honor of Mr. Betteridge and his predecessors, let me state clearly that with respect to this headline, “The answer is no.

I can certainly understand why the buy side might not like price floors, but a buyer calling floors fraud is like King George III calling George Washington a terrorist.

Would it be fraud if one bought for 25¢ CPM an impression that’s worth $25 CPM from an ROI perspective? That’s a much bigger disparity between “true” value and transacted price than the example in the AdExchanger byline. Yet this sort of transaction happens all the time because, leveraging technologies like re-targeting, a buyer often knows much more about user value in the context of a particular campaign than a seller does. If they were being candid, many (if not most) buyers would tell you this is kind of the point of sophisticated, RTB-based buying strategies.

So, then, Is Precise, Data-Driven Targeting The Next (Next) Iteration Of Ad Fraud? Of course not.

What would a “true” or “real” floor price for an impression even be, as opposed to the “false” or “artificial” floor to which the author objects? Would it be the small fraction of a cent that it costs the seller to serve the impression? Would it be the seller’s operating expenses divided by its impression volume? Maybe add some margin? What’s a fair margin? Would it be opportunity cost, which the author implies would be his choice? (Second price approximates opportunity cost if one makes some reasonable assumptions.) Something else?

It’s not like I have written a book on this stuff or anything, but I have to tell you that I don’t see any reason why one of these options is more “fair” or “true” than the others. On the contrary, I see all kinds of reasons why all of them are less fair than the outcome of a voluntary transaction between two independent and accountable market participants.

To be clear, the seller has an obligation not to misrepresent what she is selling; misrepresenting what one is selling is bad (just ask Volkswagen). But where else in commerce do we even expect, much less require, a seller to disclose their reservation price transparently?

Do we get mad at the person who sold us our house because they didn’t tell us their brokers’ open was poorly attended and they really need to move immediately? Do we get mad at the car salesman who bargains harder because we forgot to take off our nice watch? Do we get mad at the movie theater because there were empty seats and so their opportunity cost on our ticket was $0? For that matter, do we even get mad at the movie theater for the $10 bag of stale popcorn? No. We expect that behavior and we do our best to counter it, but at the end of the day we decide whether the price offered is worth it to us in context and we buy or don’t buy.

The bottom line is that sellers should be free to use any and all (legal) tools available to them to manage their businesses in any way they think will meet their business objectives. Buyers are free to change bidding strategy, negotiate special terms or look elsewhere if economics on a transaction don’t work for them. Reasonable people could debate whether or not price floors are good for the efficiency of the market overall, but thankfully nobody is setting policy for the market overall – this isn’t 1950s Stalingrad.

Floors, “artificial” or otherwise, are a valuable and perfectly legitimate yield management tool for sellers.

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...

4 Responses to Floors are not Fraud

  1. Pingback: Programmatic For All Publishers; Alibaba's Answer To Black Friday

  2. Great post !

    In the end what matters is transparency about the rules of the game.
    Holding first price auctions when everyone expect second price auction can arguably be seen as unfair but setting hard floors in a smart way in the second-price auction game when the game clearly allows it is just being smart.
    This being said I think the original article from Jim Caruso mixes soft-floors and dynamic hard floors.

  3. Andy, you’re being far too gentle here.

    Caruso’s article was so wrong-headed and the title so outrageous it’s a worth considering if he has any knowledge of the publisher side at all. Changing pricing floors based on what buyers are bidding is practically yield management 101.

    Taking it from another angle, if I was a client of Varick Media, and I saw a Varick SVP openly stating that his employees were bidding $30 CPMs for inventory that was nowhere close to that value, and it was a big enough problem to write an article in a widely read industry trade, I would scream “WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY MONEY???!!”

    It is the publisher’s perrogative to sell the inventory for whatever price they want, demand and fill be damned.

    There’s so much more to be said here, but it’s early in my part of the world and I’d rather not get angry before 10AM.

  4. Agree with everything here. But could the original article be referring to possible misrepresentation of the Vickrey where pubs dynamically change floor (perhaps after winner is determined) just to make it more first price than second price?

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