Adalytics report exposes the intricacies of made-for-advertising sites

Made-for-advertising sites are like rabbit holes: The deeper ad executives delve, the more convoluted and widespread they appear to be.

In recent months, Adalytics has uncovered that hundreds of major advertisers, many affiliated with the ANA trade body, have unknowingly placed ads on these so-called MFAs — whose definition remains contentious among many.

It’s a situation that’s gotten so bad that there are some advertisers who could be spending as much as $40 million per year on such inventory. It’s another one of advertising’s inconvenient truths — a reality that gnaws at media budgets, often at the expense of more lauded publishers.

In typical fashion for the research outfit, which scored some high-profile reputational blows against online advertising giant Google throughout 2023, Adalytics’ near-25,000 word report goes into intricate detail, with its founder Krzysztof Franaszek cherry picking key insights for Digiday readers:

  1. Retail media networks are a key driver of MFA websites’ traffic.
  2. Start connecting the dots between frequency capping and MFAs.
  3. Private marketplace deals are not the silver bullet for MFA woes.
  4. Only two DSPs were found to be free of MFA. Can you guess who?
  5. All of the major holding companies were observed serving ads on MFA sites.

It’s a sobering list to digest, but it’s hardly surprising.

For years, large segments of the ad industry have turned a blind eye to the issue. Addressing it would mean confronting harsh — and arguably costly — realities. Namely, that cheap reach doesn’t really exist. If it did, MFAs wouldn’t be as prevalent as they are.

As a result, advertisers end up paying a lot of money for inventory that is murky at best, and fraudulent at worst.

The Adalytics report laid this out bare.

It found that these sites are using every trick in the book, from aggressive ad refreshes to lack of frequency caps on pages, to artificially inflate the value of their ad inventory.

For instance, Kroger paid an effective cost per 1,000 people reached of $5,491 to reach one consumer on an MFA site. Comcast, on the other hand, paid an effective cost per 1,000 people reached of $2,628 to reach one consumer on an MFA in a single page view session.

Even more alarming, these tactics can be so effective that reaching one unique viewer on an MFA site may cost more than the incremental reach of advertising during the Super Bowl halftime show or running ads on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, according to Adalytics.

Despite the ad industry’s efforts to tackle these issues over the past year or so, they persist. If anything, the Adalytics report raises doubts about the effectiveness of those efforts and even calls into question some of the longstanding controls advertisers rely on to ensure responsible advertising practices.

Take frequency capping, for example.

According to the report, either it doesn’t work on MFA websites, or there is a reluctance to adopt such campaign measures when it comes to ad inventory that is often seen as cheap reach inventory. If the latter is true, then ad execs may not fully comprehend how MFAs operate, per Adalytics researchers. Considering the number of page refreshes and subsequent ad impressions these sites generate, they’re evidently not a cost-effective means of ad exposure.

The same holds true for private marketplace deals. The preconceived notions advertisers had of them in the fight against MFAs have been found wanting.

However, Adalytics’ report found that several players that made such pledges were falling short of these ideals, specifically those that said they would employ private marketplace (PMP) deals to avoid such errors. The report’s researchers observed several instances of SSPs serving ads on behalf of their clients that Jounce clearly identifies as MFA properties, a sign that such proclamations require near constant policing.

Again, none of this is going to surprise anyone to read. This is a problem that’s as old as it is complicated. In fact, it’s arguably more of an existential problem for a lot of senior marketers above anything else, because to tackle it properly would mean having to admit those lost ad prices achieved were fake. In turn, they’d have to admit they’re attribution model doesn’t work because it rewards rubbish.

Don’t expect any changes anytime soon, judging by how prevalent this issue is on the buy side of programmatic auctions.

Many major DSPs were putting ads on MFAs during Adalytics’ research. The only two DSPs Adalytics saw zero ads from on MFAs were The Trade Desk and Walmart DSP. Expect to see Adalytics’ findings fueling the marketing copy from their social media teams in the near future.

Media agencies aren’t that much better, in fairness.

Per Adalytics, all major agency holding companies were observed putting ads for specific brands on MFA websites, a finding that would contradict the narrative of such Madison Avenue stalwarts.

A full copy of the report can be downloaded here.

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