Parts of the online advertising sector are in a state of alarm. The issue of misplaced ads by online ad networks, which has been around since the birth of online advertising, is set to be highlighted in an upcoming edition of the BBC's Panorama.
Its investigators contacted big names in the digital industry, trying to unearth the reasons behind online ads appearing on sites that host violent content.
The move prompted some hastily arranged meetings at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and IASH (Internet Advertising Sales House), the trade body for online sales houses, which is now part of the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB).
The role of online ad networks is to distribute remnant advertising on behalf of media agencies, avoiding the need to negotiate with possibly hundreds of individual media owners. This is done by category, such as automotive, finance or leisure websites.
The misplacement of ads on inappropriate sites has involved campaigns for such advertisers as easyCar and eBay. LBi, the largest digital agency in Europe, which handles easyCar's advertising, said that, while it is acutely aware of the problem, there is little retrospective action that it can take.
Ewen Sturgeon, the agency's managing director, says that LBi works with four different networks, two of which are IASH members. As all Sturgeon has seen are screen grabs, he can't determine which network served the ad. All four networks deny responsibility.
While LBi has issued an intent to weed out the offending network, IASH has also been talking tough. Khalil Ibrahimi, chair of IASH and head of ad network Unanimis, last week issued an edict to its members to tighten up their practices with the threat of sanctions against offending networks. Yet, Sturgeon believes incidents like these will happen again. As does Ibrahimi, who believes the finger of blame should perhaps move towards others: to the role of chain buying, unregulated networks and media agencies.
IASH members are forbidden from buying inventory from non-IASH member networks, yet this is the most likely reason behind IASH taking sanctions against its members. It is common practice for networks to buy inventory from other networks, or chain buy, according to one head of an IASH ad network. He argues that if media agencies dictated to networks not to engage in such practices, then the problem would go away.
And the role of agencies is one that networks are keen to question. One UK agency uses more than 30 networks to distribute its ads.
Although no decision has been made yet, one member of the IPA's digital media group said that it is likely the IPA will advise or possibly even require its members to work only with networks belonging to IASH.
Nigel Gwilliam, the IPA's head of digital, says: "What the industry needs to do now is make sure self-regulation is robust.
"The IPA is in dialogue with ISBA and the IAB about the issue. Problems seem to be appearing down the line when sales houses are exchanging inventory.
"We've issued an alert to all digital and media members of the IPA to be extra vigilant about what sites clients' ads run on.
"There is no doubt that these problems are preventable. At the end of the day, we need to make sure companies comply with the IASH code of conduct. Compliance is required, otherwise members should be suspended."
While IPA members have the power to dictate to networks how their advertising is run, it is not common practice for them to outlaw chain buying. Gwilliam is confident, however, that problems can be resolved if collaboration increases.
By moving under the IAB banner, IASH has gained more industry endorsement and is taking this further with an audit of all of its members. ABC Electronic has been hired to monitor exactly the activity of its members and is due to report back next month.
With IASH making strides towards more respectability, it seems media agencies and the digital business trade bodies will have to give IASH back-up if the problem of misplaced ads is to be resolved.
Ibrahimi says: "The leaders of our industry are not signing up to our terms and conditions. We have to ask them why."
Whatever next month's BBC Panorama investigation uncovers, agencies, networks and trade bodies have, at least, started prioritising the problem.
HISTORY OF IASH
- IASH's membership is made up of 13 ad networks: Ad 2-one, adconion, addvantage media, adpepper, Adviva, blue lithium, Drive Performance Media (previously MediaBrokers), eType, MediaRun, monetise, Unanimis and VC Media
- IASH's 13 members aren't the only ad networks around; nor do they necessarily offer the same types of services. Some, such as Ad 2-One, eType and Unanimis base a large part of their business on selling ads on third-party websites, while most members concentrate more on advertising reach
- IASH was formed in 2005 to encourage best practice among online advertising sales houses through adopting a code of conduct. The purpose behind it was to ensure that ads run through member networks don't appear on websites that could jeopardise advertisers' brands.