Anti-Transparency Horseshit

Mollie Spilman from argues in a piece on today's iMediaConnection that insisting on network transparency hurts advertisers.  Thus, I fisk...

The fact is, there's nothing nefarious about non-disclosure. Some of the best and most reputable networks don't offer full transparency-- but it's not because they have something to hide.

The fact is, there IS something nefarious about non-disclosure.  Networks have abused non-disclosure by buying out of network when inventory is tight and running advertisers in unexpected spots.  They've also abused it by running ads in areas that are risky or detrimental to brands.  How can someone say with a straight face that there's nothing nefarious about non-disclosure?  We know that not to be the case with many networks.

Premium publishers are willing to sell ads via a network, but they don't want them to compete with their own salespeople. (It's the same reason designer fashions at deep-discount retailers often have their labels removed.)

This is almost certainly true in many cases.  However, it's also true that crummy publishers and sites that are inappropriate for many brands hide behind non-disclosure and receive ads from advertisers that they wouldn't have a prayer of getting from a direct sales effort.  How is an advertiser or agency supposed to make an accurate value judgment if they don't know whether they're getting premium or junk?

The truth is, full transparency can actually be a sign of lesser quality. It could be that sites willing to disclose through a network may not be able to get advertisers any other way and have nothing to lose by throwing their names around.

That's a shaky argument if I've ever seen one.  So there are sites that can't get advertisers, so they solve this problem by letting a network throw their sullied name around instead?  This makes no sense to me whatsoever.

If a network has 30,000 websites but 50 percent online reach, it likely contains smaller sites with fewer visitors vs. a network with 3,000 sites and 80 percent reach. Even a network that discloses a huge list of sites may not cover much of the web, because those sites may be small or fail to attract many visitors. On the other hand, a network with a smaller number of sites or one that does not disclose a site list may in fact reach a greater number of unique visitors because the site quality is higher.

I see where she's going with this.  But it's impossible to make an accurate judgment of reach if you don't know where your ads are running.  Supposed a non-disclosure network serves ads into AOL properties (as has done) and I have an existing deal with AOL.  How am I supposed to accurately gauge duplication?

The good news is that even without a site list, you don't have to take a leap of faith. Carefully examine the network's reported reach, its technological and targeting capabilities, and the results it can quantify. These factors can tell you all you really need to know.

When I read this, I couldn't help but think of Obi-Wan Kenobi pulling the Jedi Mind Trick on stormtroopers at Mos Eisley.  Without a site list, a brand takes a leap of faith.  Period.  The "Trust us.  There's nothing to see here." argument doesn't hold water anymore after years of network abuse of non-disclosure.

Fortunately, there's a solution to all of this, and the technology to implement the solution has existed for at least 10 years.  Networks should submit their network affiliates to agency-side ad servers.  Planners and buyers should then un-check any network affiliates they don't want to run with (for whatever reason, including inappropriate environments and duplicative reach, etc.).  Networks then get a special tag from the ad server, which shuts off automatically if the tag runs outside the agreed-upon list of affiliates.  The ad server deactivates tags by watching HTTP referrers to see if they match the affiliate list.  If too many clicks or ad requests come from unapproved affiliates, the tag shuts off and an e-mail is generated to the planner or buyer working the account.

Simple and easy to execute.  We should have this already.  It would cut down on the number of horror stories every online planner and buyer has regarding networks that have abused their trust.

I don't mean to single out with this critique.  Just the opposite.  We've had great successes with selected clients by advertising with  But I don't buy this "trust us" mentality.  The trust has already been abused (not necessarily by, but by others in the space) and advertisers can't afford to trust all non-disclosure networks with their brands.

Thanks to Accuquote's Sean Cheyney for bringing this piece to my attention.