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I was going to name this edition “The Worst Best Take on Ad Fraud Ever” because it might live up to the title, but then I got a better one.

I also considered “A Modest Proposal for Ad Fraud.” That will make sense shortly.

As someone who almost never drinks alcohol on flights (correlation: I almost never use airplane bathrooms), I’m writing this sitting next to a pastor as we drink cabernet while heading down to Nashville.

He said he’s going to a conference to hear different interpretations of the word of God, and I thought that was an extreme way to refer to the research analysts I was going to see, but it turns out we’re going to different events.

The WiFi’s not working, and I was about to shut my laptop down and read a print Library of America edition of Philip Roth’s The Facts. Alas, I then had an itch that only a writing session could scratch.

I can’t stop thinking about data ostensibly shared by the Association of National Advertisers that said $120 billion of advertising is wasted due to fraud. MediaPost covered this but added a note saying this might not be what the ANA meant. Some more press pandemonium ensued that I won’t get into here.

But let’s suppose for now that the research is remotely accurate, and that ad fraud is a $120 billion a year problem.

What if this is the best news for the ad industry?

Maybe that thought was the result of an ordeal where I had 24 hours of the most wonderful and then most baffling customer service I’ve experienced from a certain airline named after a Greek letter (“Beta late than never!” would be a great slogan). I had almost missed my flight and was feeling punchy – hence the mid-air wine.

Or maybe sitting next to a pastor made me want to confess something.

It was that thought about the upside of the ad fraud data that led me to put down Roth and open up Dell (I’m still not a Mac guy, and I’m not sorry).

Growing up digital, including formative years shedding my industry baby teeth at eMarketer before growing my new set of pearlies at agencies iCrossing and 360i, there was this sense – not from those firms, but from what felt like most folks I encountered – that most marketers ‘didn’t get it.’

Whatever “it” was, “it” was what marketers weren’t getting.

Those brands, spending all that crazy money on TV and magazines, they were doomed (said others).

Just press play on that Dollar Shave Club video and drive that final nail in brands’ coffins. They’d all be toast.

I never felt that way, and I don’t even shop that way. There’s a Gillette razor in my Ziploc toiletry bag, along with Gillette shaving foam, Oral-B toothpaste, Johnson & Johnson Band-Aids, and Old Spice deodorant. I love brands with longevity. It usually means their products do their jobs.

If we assume that brands get “it,” that most agency people are competent at their jobs and are looking out for their clients, and that a lot of the ad tech ecosystem is delivering on the various promises that each part of the stack strives to fulfill, then we’re still left with one big matzo ball hanging out there, Costanza.

It’s that there’s a lot of room for error.

And there’s a lot of room for malicious behavior.

And there’s a lot of room for well-intentioned, well-informed people using well-developed tools to still miss a chunk of what’s going on.

Yet it’s working.

It’s working so well that there could be more than $100 billion of ad fraud a year, and everyone’s collectively still spending more on advertising.

If we all spent hundreds of billions of dollars a year on cars and they could barely get us from Newark to Secaucus without needing a tow truck, there wouldn’t be an auto industry.

Yet the ad industry is thriving.

In the earlier, emerging days of digital advertising — , there was a lot of talk (at least in the circles I traveled in) about bathrooms.

“People are paying to run TV ads when viewers are going to the bathroom!” was a common refrain to lambast the ludicrousness of the whole medium.

How many times did you hear a line like that in pitches and at conferences? I probably said it a few times too, thinking it made me sound smarter (it didn’t).

It was as if every commercial break, every household of 2.3 individuals would travel en masse to the lavatory. Any ad for beverages must have done exceptionally well because people must have been spending the entire day drinking and peeing back then.

I learned once playing Trivial Pursuit – perhaps the only trivia question I remember from playing as a kid – that people pee an average of six times a day. But TV viewers must have been peeing six times an HOUR.

Here’s another way to think about it.

Consider the philosophical-biological experiment, the apocryphal frog in the pot of boiling water.
I read somewhere once, or maybe many times, that the whole thing wasn’t true. Frogs won’t just let you boil them alive.

But as a metaphor, I wonder if that’s what the ad industry is experiencing with all this fraud.

We keep turning up the heat, and it’s getting more and more uncomfortable.

What is that fraud limit we’ll tolerate if we’re really at $120 billion today, and if ad fraud really is growing way faster than ad spending?

First, we have to know how hot the water is getting. Is it coming to a boil? We need better data.

We should strive to get that data while we’re in this lengthy era of sustained growth for the ad industry.

There are smoke alarms already. And that’s good. You want to be able to smell the smoke before your home catches on fire.

Whether we’re on the buy or sell side, whether we’re on the front lines or the sidelines, we’ve got to see what we can do to turn down the heat.

There’s a much longer conversation too, and the mother of all conversations that’s worth revisiting another day: many of the problems are solvable if we have the will to do so and are willing to pay extra for it.

It’s possible to verify that ads were delivered to real humans visiting real publishers. But clearly, that’s not everyone’s top priority.

There will always be fraud. There’s fraud with credit cards. There are email scams. There are phone scams. There’s fraud everywhere you look, but ad fraud is a special case.

Ad fraud is easy enough to commit that it’s highly rewarding compared to the low risk, and it’s highly tolerated with fewer incentives for advertisers to root out most of it.

Congrats, ad industry, on getting this far with this much fraud, even if the actual share of fraud remains actively debated.

We still have an opportunity to reverse course and get it right.

But first, we have to want to.

David

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