In the last 6 months or so, I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of online advertising contracts requesting third party billing. Third-party billing occurs when the advertiser, through their agency, chooses to serve a creative from one provider, such as Eyeblaster, but wants impression reporting and billing to be based on another provider, such as DoubleClick or Atlas, which makes them the third.
At first this seems crazy, but it really doesn’t get any better the more you think about it, it’s still crazy.
This is accomplished in different ways, basically boiling down to one of two methods. For lack of a better term, we can call them front-end and back-end. On the front-end system, the information is embedded in the third-party creative script that calls the third-party provider to record an impression. In the back-end setup, all logging is done via a back-end call from the third-party provider to the room provider, without any exposure to the creative source.
While the front-end might be a bit easier for a publisher to manage, neither of these setups are really ideal for a few different reasons.
Let’s start with front-end tracking. This means that there is code in the third-party creative trafficked to the publisher that will initiate the call to the third-party provider. In most cases, this code is obscured and not obvious when looking at the code. To my knowledge, only Eyewonder has an implementation that clearly displays the relative fourth part tag. Even Eyewonder doesn’t seem to always use this format, but when it does, it greatly improves the publisher’s ability to relate and track and bill the article correctly. Unfortunately, most front-end implementations use code that is not part of the normal reporting process and does not make the relationship clear. Even when that’s the case, front-end tracking has the advantage of blocking the relationship between third and fourth parties and avoiding the creative change issues that back-end tracking can have.
Back-end tracking achieves the same goal, recording a third to fourth impression, but it does so entirely on the back-end. The third party does not embed the tracking in the creative, but instead uses a system setting to create the relationship for them.
There are 2 big problems with this approach. First of all, there is no way for the publisher to try to establish the relationship between third-party and third-party tracking, since the creative script doesn’t even have a clue about the details. The second challenge is that providers can change the relationship mid-flight without notifying the publisher.
There are also the general problems with both methods. Since publishers are asked to serve a creative from one provider, but report delivery through another provider, the publisher needs the relationship to be clearly defined. However, the agencies do not seem to understand this and rarely provide documentation to help clarify it. In fact, agencies often do not seem to fully understand this arrangement of their own making.
Imagine you have a VISA credit card and one day you get a message from them telling you that you now need to pay your VISA bill to a MasterCard account. However, they don’t tell you what the new account number is. When you ask them what the account number is, they either don’t answer or answer but don’t give you the information, instead asking what you mean.
That’s a pretty good metaphor for how notification and 3rd party implementations often work. In fact, that example is not the worst case. In the worst case, the agencies do not specify the relationship before the launch of the campaign and only inform the publisher weeks or months later when disputing the billing.
Imagine, in the VISA/MasterCard example above, they waited until after the fact to tell you that you had incorrectly paid your bill to the wrong account for months and told you that you should have made payments to the MasterCard account. , so they still refuse to give you the account number. Again, as confusing as it sounds, it’s an accurate picture of the problem publishers are facing.
So what is the solution?
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, some decisions must be made and guidelines considered so that publishers can at least feel that they have done their due diligence and prepared.
The first thing publishers should ask themselves is whether they want to agree to these terms. Given the above complication, publishers may consider backing off or at least setting some minimum standards for how it should be handled. But the situation is complicated enough that publishers must operate from a position of conditional acceptance of its terms, not absolute obligation.
If publishers decide they’re going to accept third-party terms, and they do so with some conditions, there are a few things that should be high on your list.
Since agencies create the relationships between third-party and quarter tracking, publishers should require that agencies make that information available in a simple format. The best case scenario would be for all third-party tracking to be embedded as a direct call or comment in the third-party creative script, similar to the Eyewonder example above. This would have the advantage of being done once during setup and negating the need for follow-up communication. It would also be a permanent solution and even years later the tracking relationship could be investigated. Lastly, you would have the benefit of being part of the creative setup and as new creative assets are tracked, they would have the solution integrated.
If a one-step solution like the above cannot be achieved, then agencies need to understand that they will need to provide publishers with some way to relate third-party tracking to third-party tracking. A simple spreadsheet would suffice, but it’s still not as good a solution as the integrated solution above, as that information will need to be communicated and managed over the life of the campaign and for some time afterward.
Agencies must not only provide the key to building relationships, they must do so in a timely manner. How is timely defined? Before the location is released, as disclosing the relationship afterwards can severely limit the ability to pace and control delivery.
The tracking and billing of online advertising by third parties is complicated and requires the industry to address that complication or resign itself to living with it. Ignoring the issues won’t make them go away, and while the upcoming IAB Impression Exchange may resolve some issues, it certainly won’t be a silver bullet for third-party ad tracking.