What type of transparency do online advertisers really need?

Clients are rightly demanding more transparency in digital advertising, writes Infectious Media’s Daniel de Sybel – but are they focused on the right type? It’s time to make some clear distinctions.
Dan de Sybel

“Transparency” in online display advertising has become somewhat of a dirty topic. Being accused of lacking transparency now carries connotations of nefarious media executives planning new ways of making money by increasingly obscure means. Advertisers are seen as the victims, tempted by promises of smart technology and more efficient buying, persuading them to spend more in areas they don’t really understand.

Transparency loosely falls into two, often confused, categories: financial and operational:

  • Financial transparency (as it suggests) is being able to see exactly how many of your marketing pounds go to media, data, technology and service
  • Operational transparency is about understanding where your ads are served, which metrics your optimisation algorithm uses and the general running of your campaign, including brand safety measures.


Most of the recent debate has focused on agency groups’ trading desks, with commentators saying these organisations provide little transparency – financial or operational. In some cases, agencies have been compelled by advertisers to create trading desks run by their subsidiary agencies rather than the parent holding group. Many advertisers are already looking at alternative suppliers or even taking matters in-house. So what has led to this?

Being financially transparent is easy as long as you keep it simple and can appropriately justify why technology, data and service all need to be considered individually. I’m not a great fan of the adage, “if it performs, why would you care how much margin is being made?” It assumes the ends justify the means and it opens up traders to look to game attribution in order to drive up their own profits at the expense of the advertiser’s true goals.

For me, the real issue is operational transparency. We live in an era where there is more data being collected about more things more often than ever before. This makes operational transparency hard. A typical midscale trading desk running through an off-the-shelf demand side platform (DSP) will typically see 50-100 million impressions a day across between 10 thousand and one million domains.

Without smart technology to collect, aggregate, analyse and visualise this data to find the drivers of performance, and without dedicated teams of people to sift through this data to uncover the pearls of wisdom that are hidden amongst the sea of noise then all you have is a very manual way of executing blind campaigns.

This is the true problem, and the one that the transparency debate in the press actually obscures. There are few companies intentionally trying to mislead advertisers.

To fix this advertisers need to demand more information about their campaigns, not just after they’ve finished running, but whilst a campaign is active. Insights around domains, placements, viewability, time of day, day of week and the whole host of other elements that can affect a campaign’s impact should be freely available.

One of the most attractive aspects of real-time advertising (RTA) is the opportunity to test and learn. If those learnings are hidden, campaigns are valued purely on efficiency, which isn’t good for anyone in the industry.

Transparency is, thus, not an advertiser issue – it is a market issue, and one which needs resolution for the industry to continue to move forward and grow.



Daniel de Sybel, Director of Technology & Operations, Infectious Media

This article featured in MediaTel Newsline’s Opinion section and you can view it by clicking here.