Exclusive: It takes a bot to catch a bot, says advertising chief

Alongside its early challenges and uncertainty around digital ad spend, 2020 has been a big year for digital advertising as the pandemic forced businesses and consumers moved online.

City A.M. spoke with Mayfair-based Nick Morley, EMEA Managing Director at online ad verification giant Integral Ad Science, which analyses the value of digital advertising placements.

UK recovery

2020 was a record year for online content consumption, but also a rise in hate speech and misinformation. “Combined with privacy concerns and the deprecation of third-party cookies, advertisers have had to adapt and innovate like never before,” Morley said.

Nevertheless, he stressed that a rapid rise in digital content consumption, healthy growth in digital video usage, advancement for contextual targeting and a shift towards brand suitability, are positive signs for the digital advertising industry.

“Alongside its challenges, 2020 has proven to be a year of innovation for digital advertising as we witnessed changes that may be measured in years were instead measured in months,” Morley argued. “In 2021, the UK recovery will accelerate and benefit from ad spend that migrated from other channels and strength in e-commerce.”

Read more: Government releases £800m of dormant funds for pandemic recovery

Finding the right approach

One thing IAS does is to verify the quality of digital ad placements for brands and advertisers. In other words, it provides the technology that allows advertisers to block ads from appearing next to unsafe content and towards suitable content online.

“So when questions around keyword blocking and coronavirus were raised in 2020, we saw 77 per cent drop in “coronavirus”-related keyword blocking from mid-March to May in the UK. This is due to the industry’s quick response, education, and access to contextual technology that allowed advertisers to not over block on news content, if that makes sense,” Morley said.

He expects this trend to continue this year and by combining brand safety and brand suitability activities, advertisers can avoid inappropriate content and also proactively target suitable content, ultimately supporting high quality journalism.

“This year, it’s essential that brands prioritise taking a prescriptive approach to keyword blocking, moving away from blanket approaches and towards optimising digital ad investments,” Morley explained. “The focus on targeting towards suitable content, as opposed to blocking against unsafe content, will grow to be the new normal.”

Read more: What will 2021 bring for the advertising industry?

Digital video growth

In 2020, work-from-home orders fuelled usage of social media, streaming platforms, digital video and smart devices. “Everyone is guilty of having scrolled continuously through social feeds and binged watched their favourite TV shows.” Morley laughs.

He shares the results of a recent IAS survey among global digital advertising experts, 88 per cent expect the shift in ad spend from satellite linear TV to digital video such as streaming platforms will only accelerate in 2021.

“Advertisers are going to be spending more on digital video than ever before as the format emerges to become a major avenue for online advertising campaigns,” Morley said.

The biggest drivers for this are audience migration and consumer viewing habits, alongside its ability to provide advertisers with enhanced targeting and richer data insights.

Contextual targeting

Morley suggests we should imagine reading an article about a cruise ship accident, and seeing an advert for a cruise ship sale beside it. The ad, although related to cruising, is out of place.

“And that’s the consensus of UK audiences,” Morley said firmly. “The content that people consume, the shows people like or dislike, have a big part to play in the ads that appear alongside it. Beyond this, advertisers are now able to target consumers based on the emotion or contextual relevance of content.”

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This contextual analysis uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyse the content of web pages “at a cognitive semantic level, Morley explained. “It can tell us, for example, that advertising cruise ship sales on a page related to a cruise ship accident, is not the relevant context.”

“It’s a big game changer in a world where third-party cookies [the bit of code that tracks our online movement] will be made obsolete by Google this year,” he said, adding that this presents a welcomed opportunity.

“Contextual targeting will achieve scale for advertisers in 2021,” he said. “This need will be particularly prevalent in Europe, where GDPR, privacy concerns and the phase-out from third-party cookies continues to limit the data available for audience targeting. Unlike cookies, contextual data analyses the content of a page and so is full-proof in a world without third-party cookies.”

But advertisers go further as that’s not the only type of data or information that can be gathered from a page.

“In addition, sentiment analysis, providing the ability for brands to target based on negative or positive emotions will grow as it allows the industry to build more intelligent solutions,” Morley noted.

Read more: Cinema is the clear loser of the pandemic advertising economy

Takes a bot to catch a bot

Finally, he mentioned that increased adoption and innovation may push platforms forward, but also creates challenges around ad fraud. For example, IAS defines a successful ad impression as one that is viewable by a real person in a safe and suitable environment, and all of this should happen within the desired geography of a campaign.

“A big trend that we’re seeing is that malicious bots and fraudsters are being programmed to appear as human as possible, intentionally watching videos online, or clicking on ads,” Morley said, adding that this leads to an increased need for the use of sophisticated tools and software, in order to detect these bots.

“In the modern fraud landscape, it takes a bot to catch a bot,” he noted, stressing that advertisers can no longer solely rely solely on humans or human rules to try to stop a scalable machine-driven threat.

“In 2021, using a machine learning-driven approach that learns about unknown threats will become critical,” Morley concluded.

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