3 Steps to Avoid Brand Suicide in a Programmatic Apocalypse

Programmatic advertising promised to be the savior of results-hungry brands, delivering high ROI with real-time bidding and machine learning. However, programmatic is wrought with controversy due to ad fraud and concerns for brand safety. If a computer can drive your car, they can probably buy your ads, but will your ads show up on an ISIS site? Also, programmatic with real time bidding creates latency that may result in such a delay (2+ seconds) that no one wins the auction. How can advertisers avoid brand suicide while reaping the rewards of the programmatic realm?

What is Programmatic Advertising?

Programmatic is a form of digital advertising that uses computers to buy remnant ad inventory on the open ad exchange much cheaper than buying directly with publishers. Programmatic advertising started growing in popularity in the early 2000s. Since 2015,  over half of all digital ads have been sold on these platforms. In my experience, many agencies don’t even realize that they are buying programmatic when they buy ads on Google Display and Facebook. Any platform that claims to connect you to virtually all of the internet-viewing population is probably selling you programmatic.

What is More Valuable – Programmatic Advertising or Premium Placements?

  • Benefits of Programmatic – It’s much cheaper (lower CPM), gives you access to more inventory, and uses AI with machine learning to optimize your campaign for your KPI at scale in a way that humans couldn’t possibly manage.
  • Benefits of Buying Direct on Premium Placements – It’s brand safe because you know exactly which sites your ads will appear on. If you buy on TripAdvisor, you know your ads will not appear on an extremist or X-rated site. According to comScore, direct buys get higher viewability rates, meaning more of the ads are seen by actual humans and not bots.

What is Ad Viewability and Why Does it Matter?

Display ads are sold based on ad impression volume (CPM – cost-per-thousand), but we still have to agree on what that means and how to make sure advertisers are getting what they’re paying for. You wouldn’t want to go to the movie theater and buy a  tub of popcorn, only to find out your tub was half full of cotton balls. Then when you go to complain, they try to convince you that you’re better off with cottony popcorn, because otherwise you would pay twice as much and gain more weight.

How Much of Your Ad Budget is Wasted on Cotton Balls?

It’s estimated that over 50% of paid programmatic impressions are never viewed by an actual human.

What is a Viewable Ad Impression?

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Google define a viewable ad impression as:

Showing at least 50% of your ad within a viewable area for at least 1 second.

What is the Ideal Viewability Threshold?

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) recommends a threshold of 70% viewability with at least half of your ad visible for at least 1 second.

Some programmatic vendors have told me their default setting for viewability threshold is 35-55% and that increasing to 70% would also increase the cost and eliminate 95% of all inventory. They also said it would hurt performance, resulting in lower engagement and fewer sales.

Does Higher Viewability Really Hurt Performance?

Actually, no.  Sizmek says ads that met the 70% viewability standard got better results with more engagement.

Why Are They Selling Us Cotton Balls?

It’s simple math. If 70% viewability eliminates 95% of inventory, then most of what they are selling is cotton balls or fluff. If we stopped buying cotton balls, they would go out of business. Perhaps this is because much of the higher quality inventory is reserved for direct buys.

Why Are Most Ad Impressions Not Viewable by Humans?

Here are the primary factors that impact viewability:

  • Bots have taken over the internet, accounting for about 52% of total website traffic.
  • Mobile screen sizes with responsive websites have reduced ad viewability because often the ad appears on a part of your page that was never shown.
  • Some publishers serve mostly non-viewable ad impressions.
  • Some ad positions higher on the page have better viewability, due to scroll depth.
  • Vertical ad units get better viewability.
  • Viewability varies by industry with reference getting the highest rankings.

Is Viewability Increasing?

Some studies do show average viewability rates increasing, while the length of time ads are viewed is decreasing. This is because as more advertisers demand minimum viewability standards – 50% of the ad viewed for last least 1 second – publishers are trying to make as many of the ads appear for only 1 second to make more money.

Does Programmatic Have a Latency Issue?

Yes, big time. Programmatic with real-time-bidding uses header bidding technology to calculate the value of each ad impression in real time before an ad is displayed. Real-time bidding and use of tracking pixels can create latency that slows down page load by 2 seconds or more, which can result in a bad user experience, and perhaps no one winning the ad auction at all. This is one reason why some larger brands are choosing more premium programmatic options, such as private marketplace and programmatic direct.

Can Programmatic Advertising Hurt Brands?

Yes. Brands doing programmatic advertising are trusting their reputations to robots automatically placing their ads on thousands of publishers’ websites on the open ad exchange.

Can’t We Exclude Certain Sites?

Yes, you can opt out of “sensitive categories” and provide lists of sites to exclude. I always exclude these categories in Google Display, but new content pops up every day.


There’s no guarantee that Google, YouTube and other platforms have properly identified every extremist website and video before your ad shows up next to it. Just as with spammers vs. anti-virus software engineers, there’s a constant battle between the ad platforms and people publishing content.


Most businesses and agencies don’t have time to sort through thousands of websites to ensure each one complies with their brand standards. Last time I went through the top 50 or so that showed up in my “placement” list on Google Display, I had to call my company’s IT team to quarantine a virus.

So What Are the 3 Steps to Avoid Brand Suicide in a Programmatic Apocalypse?

Step #1:  Define your brand safety concerns with a Brand Safety Guidelines document to help your digital media partners understand your priorities. This should include any topics, categories, and sites you would like to avoid.

Step #2:  Based on your Brand Safety Guidelines, you can work with your agency to determine the best media mix for your brand, which may include programmatic with category and site exclusions or a focus on direct buys with only hand-selected premium placements. Ask your digital marketing agency about:

  • Your display ad viewability rate
  • The brand safety standards they are following for your campaigns
  • Your brand vulnerabilities with current advertising endeavors

Step #3:  Consider utilizing a third party platform such as MOAT to protect and monitor your brand safety. 

Download the MOAT Defining Brand Safety White Paper

Need help with your brand safe approach to digital marketing? Contact Aristotle today for a free consultation!