Ad Tech & Programmatic

Ad tech’s supply side starts to clean up ‘made for advertising’ inventory

MFA sites eat up 15% of ad spend, an ANA report recently found.
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Peter Hansen/Getty Images

4 min read

The advertising industry is finally confronting the rotten fruit at the bottom of the digital marketing barrel.

Over the summer, a rash of supply-side platforms updated their policies to address so-called made-for-advertising (MFA) websites, after an industry report, conducted by the Association of National Advertisers found “waste” on such sites to the tune of $20 billion.

According to the report, 23% of the $88 billion spent on programmatic advertising is largely spent on MFA inventory, while these sites represent about 21% of all impressions. The second part of the ANA report is set to be released in late October during the organization’s annual Masters of Marketing conference.

What are MFA sites, exactly? They’re clickbait, created for the purpose of harvesting digital advertising budgets. Ads that run on these sites are viewable and less expensive than those of legitimate publishers (you know, the ones with newsrooms), but most of the traffic is bought, coming from sponsored posts on platforms like Meta or via Taboola chumboxes.

Since the ANA’s June report, SSPs like Pubmatic, Magnite, and OpenX have published statements about MFA inventory. Though there are subtle differences, most of the companies say the same thing—they’ll no longer include MFA inventory in the curated publisher lists they sell to select advertisers, deals that are sometimes referred to as private marketplace, or PMP.

Many of the above companies have also announced that they’re working with Jounce Media, an ad-tech consultancy largely leading the charge against MFA. Jounce also recently worked with four industry trade groups—including the ANA—to help define MFA websites by outlining some of their common characteristics, with the goal of helping marketers more easily identify them.

Crucially, Jounce Media’s CEO, Chris Kane, acknowledged that excluding clickbait websites from PMPs only works so well. If advertisers still want to buy open programmatic inventory, they’ll still have to sift through MFA inventory.

As Kane put it, when a brand buys ads programmatically on an open auction, curation is the advertiser’s job. “You’re choosing what to buy,” he told us. But when a brand goes the PMP route, it’s up to the SSP to curate inventory: “When we curate, when we take on that job, we think the responsible thing to do is to curate out all of the made-for-advertising inventory.”

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Since SSPs largely represent publishers in the ad-tech ecosystem, they often get the blame for ads running on clickbaits sites, since they’re the ones selling this inventory via their platforms. A July report from Jounce found that many of the world’s largest SSPs, including Google, Pubmatic, Magnite, and Index Exchange, have sales rights to more than 90% of what the consultancy considers “premium web supply,” like the New York Times, Condé Nast, or CNN.

Meanwhile, they also have sales rights for more than half of the “sub-premium” supply, like MFA sites, Jounce found. “They have onboarded the very best of the open internet and the very worst of the open internet,” Kane said.

But, the other half of the market is noticeably silent. To torture a metaphor, SSPs are like grocery stores—they put the food on the shelves, and buyers, or demand-side platforms (DSPs), bid on which frozen pizza they want to buy.

“As long as people want to eat junk food, grocery stores are going to keep putting junk food on the shelf,” Kane said.

Marketing Brew reached out to The Trade Desk, Google, Xandr, and Amazon about whether they’ve updated their policies as it relates to MFA content; only The Trade Desk provided comment by publication time.

“The Trade Desk prioritizes working with our publishing partners to make sure we can buy premium inventory in service of our clients. Our platform and key partnerships ensure that our clients do not advertise on MFA sites, unless explicitly targeted by the client,” The Trade Desk spokesperson Patrick Wentling wrote in an email.

Following publication, Google spokesperson Michael Aciman told Marketing Brew via email that the company’s policies do not allow publishers to “engage in disruptive, invasive, or deceptive ad-serving practices, which some would consider to indicate that they are made for advertising.”

“MFA is a complex and challenging topic—it’s also a topic that lacks consensus and definition at the moment,” he wrote. “We continue to review these issues and potential policy adjustments. We also encourage industry engagement and alignment for how to address this holistically.”

9/27/23 Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Google.

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