Yes, the Buy Side Does Know

I was talking about online ad networks the other day with a friend who works for one, and he was a bit surprised to hear about some of the network horror stories and underhanded tricks I knew about.  Behind the scenes of a network ad buy, quite a few of the networks will try to wring every last ounce of performance out of a campaign by using certain tricks of the trade that they'd prefer buyers didn't know about. They range from the slightly unethical (adding targeting filters to ensure ads get served to people with a higher propensity for clicking on ads in general) to out-and-out fraud (the use of click farms or incentivized clicking).  What surprised me about my friend was his surprise - Did he honestly think that these things would stay buried in the ad ops dungeon forever and never see the light of day?  In this day and age, with hyperlinks subverting heirarchy and all that happy crap, all secrets like this eventually become known to anyone who is interested.

Putting aside the Internet's effect on secrecy for a bit, online media is a social industry.  We all go out after work and see one another at industry get-togethers.  Does anyone expect that ad sales and ad ops people never go out and have alcohol-fueled conversations about, say, buying inventory on a non-affiliate for 10 cents a click and then getting 25 cents a click for it from network advertisers?

Certainly these things don't happen on every network buy.  But people on the buy side aren't stupid.  We know something's up when a campaign dogs it for six weeks and then suddenly comes alive with click activity two weeks before the end of the flight.  We listen to network folks, especially when you let stuff slide about behind-the-scenes manipulation of campaigns.

Maybe you won't always get caught.  Sometimes you will.  When you do, it won't be pretty.  I like to tell people about the vendor we caught a couple years ago who took apart our ad tags, developed some unapproved creative of their own and then used the clicktag to artificially inflate their click rates.  They could have called the agency and asked for an ad tag so that they could serve some bonus inventory - we would have been happy to give it.  Instead, they got busted when we noticed the unapproved creative running and called the vendor on the carpet.  We haven't bought from them since.

My point is that we're not as stupid as we sometimes look over here on the buy side.  Some of the little tricks vendors use to get their click rates up are almost indetectable, but not impossible to pick up on.  And it's not as if every sell-side ad ops person is sworn to secrecy about the stuff they do behind the scenes.  We overhear things, IRL and in online forums.  There are no secrets in this business.