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Is “Fake News” really the problem?

Two years ago the definition of ‘fake news’ was perhaps best illustrated by articles contained in The Onion ( . With headlines such as ‘U.S. Flag Recalled After Causing 143 Million Deaths’ and ‘Nation’s Dogs Vow To Keep Their Shit Together During 4th Of July Fireworks’, it was fairly easy for the average reader to understand that this stuff wasn’t really true, even if most of them were unfamiliar with the term, ‘satire’.


The advent of ‘The Donald’ and the morally void Breitbart News changed all this, virtually overnight. The fake news peddled by the likes of Breitbart is now ‘the news’ and almost any news from an otherwise credible source – CNN, BBC, the New York Times, Washington Post – that reflected badly on ‘Little Hands’ has now become ‘fake news’.

This all become very frustrating. Not least because in the last couple of weeks I have been receiving and reading articles with headlines like ‘Fake news drags down programmatic budgets’ and ‘31% of programmatic advertisers will reduce spend over fake news’.

In fact, I started to wonder whether these articles too, were more fake news! Alas, they weren’t. On reading them it became clear that the primary concern of advertisers wasn’t with programmatic media per se. They were actually talking about brand safety. In other words, advertisers were worried about their brand being placed on inappropriate sites.


Is “Fake News” the problem?

When you drill down into advertisers concerns it becomes clear that the underlying problem isn’t fake news at all. What is, and always has been the problem is ad fraud, click bots, illegal content, p2p sites, and porn.

Fake news is a minor irritant, and becomes insignificant when compared with the damage that can be inflicted on a brand by having it displayed on say a porn site. We, as an industry, have known about these issues for a long time. In fact, these are the same issues that the industry has been wrestling with since 2010.


Who should be held responsible?

We are passionate about the huge advantages programmatic trading offers brands, marketers and publishers. To be frank, we get very upset to see this fantastic technology blamed for what could more properly be described as ‘user error’. The standard blame game typically starts with the agencies and their agency trading desks. They then pass it on down the line to the tech platforms that provide access to almost limitless inventory.

The trade press calls out a brand, the brand points to their agency, the agency points at their trading desk, the trading desk points at the provider of inventory, and/or their in-house operated technology provider.

In reality, all parties probably need to shoulder some responsibility, but really, blaming programmatic for these woes, does seem to be a case of ‘shooting the messenger’.

Look at it this way: Remember those $2 ‘lucky dip’ barrels that were (and probably still are) all the rage with kids at local fairs. For those deprived souls who haven’t experienced the joys of a lucky dip barrel, you pay your $2 and then you get to scrabble round in a barrel full of wrapped gifts of all different sizes and select the one you want. Invariably, you excitedly unwrapped your mystery gift to find a piece of plastic shite that was a total disappointment. But really, what did you expect? You only paid $2 and you were expecting a Playstation?!

In programmatic, as in life, you really do ‘get what you pay for’!


What can be done and by whom?

Perhaps the first thing we would advise is, stop playing around in the figurative $2 Lucky Dip barrel! Until people realise that using untargeted programmatic trading to buy inventory based on simple clicks and impressions is always going to expose you to fraud and inappropriate sites and content. Always!

Marketers and brands need to stop paying agencies for exchange-based inventory. Just say no, it’s asking for trouble. The primary reason agencies promote this type of inventory is because they can charge a higher mark-up. The agency trading desk is able to mask the true cost and bill the client whatever they feel will be accepted. You will be playing in the $2 Lucky Dip bin and expecting that Playstation.

The most effective way to avoid appearing next to unsafe content is to stop playing in the bargain bin and start to demand more transparency, better accountability and more buying efficiency. For a start, you could make a decision to only engage in private marketplaces. Direct inventory deals with known publishers gives a brand the best control over where their ads appear. Generally, the inventory sourced via these direct deals with known publishers, generates higher response rates than unknown exchange based inventory. Subsequently offsetting the potential higher cost per unit associated with this higher quality inventory.

For example, earlier this year JP Morgan adopted a more hands-on approach to selecting the websites on which its ads would appear, by selecting quality ad units on known sites. The result were favourable with a limited impact on ad visibility and cost even as it reduced the number of sites running its ads from 400,000 down to 5,000! So with a more targeted approach you can certainly get the results you are looking for from your programmatic spend.

In markets like Australia and New Zealand 100% reach of online users, or thereabouts, can typically be achieved through direct premium publishers rather than having to utilise exchange based inventory.

We established REAL Programmatic with the sole aim of helping advertisers and publishers to take control of their programmatic media. If you are going to hand over the key decisions regarding your programmatic spend solely to your agency, then you are putting the integrity of your brand into the hands of someone else whose interests may not necessarily be the same as your own.

So, ‘programmatic’ is not to blame for issues that really boil down to the inability and unwillingness to invest the time in developing a programmatic strategy that delivers value for money across trusted web properties with measurable advertising effectiveness.

Whatever your programmatic strategy, just stay away from the $2 Lucky Dip barrels. They may be cheap, but the quality will mostly always be a disappointment.

Until next time, cheers from the team at REAL Programmatic…

Co-founder & Consultant:  Jonathan Despinidic (

Co-founder & Director: Justin Boersma (