Industry Trade Groups Release New Tools to Crack Down on the Unknown Delta

Tim Cross 23 February, 2022 

Almost two years ago, advertiser trade group ISBA and consultancy PwC released the Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study, a joint piece of research designed to highlight how a brand’s ad spend is split between all the various intermediaries in the digital ad supply chain.

The finding which got the most attention was the ‘unknown delta’ – the 15 percent of ad spend which couldn’t be attributed to any particular part of the supply chain. This finding led some to conclude that 15 percent of ad spend which goes through programmatic pipes essentially disappears into the ether, ending up in the hands of shady ad tech players.

At the time of releasing the research, ISBA announced it would convene a ‘Cross Industry Programmatic Taskforce’, to collaborate on ideas and tools for increasing transparency in programmatic advertising. Part of this work would involve identifying the unknown delta, shining a light on where that 15 percent of unattributed spending ended up.

Today ISBA and the other Taskforce members – the IPA, IAB UK, and AOP – have unveiled the first fruits of their work: a strategy for achieving financial audit transparency for programmatic advertising. While that’s a bit of a mouthful, it’s an important process for improving transparency in the programmatic supply chain.

Bumping up match rates

One of the less seized-upon results of the study two years ago was that PwC was only able to match 12 percent of impressions end-to-end, meaning the company was only to recognise the same impression as it passed through each different ad tech intermediary between the publisher and the advertiser 12 percent of the time.

ISBA said this highlighted a lack of standardised data across all the different players in the supply chain, and permissions issues between supply-side platforms (SSPs) and demand-side platforms (DSPs).

These issues weren’t just a problem for ISBA’s study. Whenever an advertiser wants to conduct a financial audit of its programmatic supply chain – to figure out exactly how much money they end up spending with various ad tech partners and how much value they’re providing – it’s very hard to get a clear picture because of these inconsistencies.

The Taskforce has created three tools which it says will help solve these problems:

  • The Audit Permission Letter (APL) intended to enable DSPs and SSPs to share the data needed for a full financial audit.
  • The Data Fields List (DFL), an agreed list of essential and supporting data fields which will provide the data to enable auditors to match impressions along the supply chain between advertisers and publishers.
  • The Principles document which summarises how the documents are intended to be used, by whom and why.

The Taskforce hopes that with widespread adoption of these tools across the industry, match rates in financial audits would be significantly higher, giving advertisers a much clearer idea of exactly where their money is going. ISBA members are preparing a test and learn study to help understand the efficacy of the tools as they stand, meaning they could be tweaked down the line based on those results. The Taskforce says these tests will also give an idea of how the unknown delta has changed since ISBA and PwC’s study back in 2020.

“This is great news for advertisers,” said Nick Ashley, head of media and campaign planning for Tesco. “At Tesco we have wanted this transparency for some time. It levels up the programmatic supply chain with other media channels in terms of auditability.”

Reassessing the delta

The Taskforce hasn’t been alone in pushing for greater transparency since the original study was released.

Transparency in programmatic advertising had, of course, already been a major topic in the industry. And since ISBA’s study we’ve seen supply-path optimisation, whereby advertisers seek to create clearer paths between themselves and the publishers they buy ads from, become much more commonplace.

Clare O’Brien, head of performance and programmatic at ISBA, says she believes these sort of efforts have resulted in significant progress. “Indications are since our study’s finding two years ago, there have been significantly increased impression match rates and commensurate reductions in the unknown delta,” said O’Brien. “We now look forward to thoroughly testing these new tools and continuing to work at industry level with the Taskforce to expand advertiser and publisher’s ability to manage their supply chains.”

But those VideoWeek spoke with emphasised that it’s important for individual advertisers to get involved with both industry-level initiatives and their own SPO practices.

The unknown delta has been portrayed by some as an industry-wide stat – meaning that any advertiser who spends through programmatic pipes should expect 15 percent of that money to disappear into unknown hands.

But ISBA and PwC have always maintained that the 15 percent delta related specifically to their study and the participants involved. Individual advertisers could see a much higher, or much lower number depending on their supply chain.

Thus all members of the Taskforce encourage all companies across the industry to get involved, to better understand their own supply chains and reduce their own individual unknown delta.


About the Author:

Tim Cross is Assistant Editor at VideoWeek.
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