In December 2021, a ray of hope shone upon the programmatic media-buying landscape as the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) joined forces with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Together, they embarked on a groundbreaking partnership with the aim of bringing transparency to an industry notorious for its convoluted practices. However, after 18 months of efforts, the partnership has come to an unexpected end, leaving behind questions and frustrations.

Programmatic advertising, with its complex web of intermediaries and undisclosed fees, has long been a puzzle wrapped in opacity. The ANA’s decision to initiate an audit, in collaboration with PwC, was a courageous step towards unraveling this enigma. The goal was to shed light on the true allocation of ad dollars and ascertain whether advertisers were receiving fraud-free, brand-safe, and viewable impressions. It was a noble vision shared by industry insiders, advertisers, and consumers alike, who yearned for a more transparent and efficient advertising ecosystem.

Yet, as with any ambitious endeavor, challenges emerged from the outset. The ANA’s U.K. counterpart, ISBA, had previously attempted a similar audit, but its limited scope and logistical difficulties left room for improvement. The ANA and PwC sought to learn from these past experiences and create a comprehensive study that would resonate with the entire industry. However, even the conceptual framework of the audit faced resistance from flagship advertisers.

Key stakeholders, including Diageo, Procter & Gamble (P&G), and Unilever, expressed their dissatisfaction with the proposed audit methodologies. These advertisers, who consulted with expert ad tech partners, found fault with the ANA and PwC’s attempt to emulate the ISBA’s “unknown delta” study. They believed that the audit fell short of addressing the fundamental issue of understanding the mounting ad tech costs. Furthermore, they questioned the representativeness of ISBA’s study, which focused on a fraction of the market.

The complexities of programmatic advertising were further exacerbated by binding contractual terms between major players in the industry. These agreements hindered the direct sharing of crucial log-level data, a vital component of the proposed audit methodology. Legal constraints between demand-side platforms (DSPs), supply-side platforms (SSPs), and publishers created obstacles that impeded the access to comprehensive data. The auditors’ vision of synchronizing impression-by-impression logs across the entire ecosystem seemed increasingly elusive.

The programmatic advertising landscape is characterized by a dizzying array of ad tech vendors and intermediaries, each adding a layer of complexity. These vendors work with external entities, creating a chain that can extend over 20 layers. At each stage, there are fees, known as “take-rates,” which are challenging to identify and verify accurately due to the sheer number of transactions and players involved. The auditors faced the monumental task of untangling this intricate web of transactions and discrepancies.

Even beyond the methodological challenges, the audit faced internal conflicts and frictions. PwC’s role as both the financial auditor of The Trade Desk, a major programmatic bidder, and the overseeing party of the audit raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Furthermore, the PwC team that had conducted the previous programmatic audit in the U.K. had disbanded, and the new team faced a steep learning curve, adding additional strain to the already complex project.

After months of grappling with these challenges, the ANA and PwC announced the dissolution of their partnership. The decision was reached amicably, recognizing the formidable obstacles that stood in the way of achieving their shared vision of transparency in programmatic advertising. Both organizations expressed their commitment to exploring alternative approaches to address the pervasive issues of fraud, brand safety, and ad transparency in the industry.

The ANA and PwC’s partnership, once heralded as a beacon of hope for transparency in programmatic advertising, ultimately fell short of its ambitious goals. The complexity of the landscape, coupled with methodological disagreements, legal hurdles, and conflicting interests, proved too daunting to overcome. However, the dissolution of this partnership should not be viewed as the end of the quest for transparency. It serves as a reminder of the immense challenges that lie ahead and calls for renewed collaboration and innovation to achieve a more transparent and accountable programmatic advertising ecosystem.

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