A Diamond in the Rough – ads.txt

Written by Steve Sullivan, VP Partner Success

Last week’s announcement from the IAB introducing the ads.txt initiative comes at a time when brand safety and clean supply chains are under an intense spotlight. A public record of Authorized Digital Sellers (ADS) will make it harder for bad actors to introduce tainted or stolen inventory into our ecosystem, taking advantage of publishers and buyers alike. Efforts like this should be adopted immediately, as it is our chance to clean up the digital legacy of Madison Avenue.

Just west of Madison Avenue lies another industry with deep roots in Manhattan – the diamond trade – and it’s also going through a similar renaissance. While it may seem odd to draw parallels between the two, there is a striking similarity: the importance of authenticity and transparency in transactions.

When purchasing a diamond, it’s imperative that one takes precautions to avoid purchasing illegitimate or illegally sourced inventory. Time Magazine recently published a list of steps diamond buyers can take to help avoid funding the blood diamond industry:

  • Ask your jeweler where the diamonds were mined.
  • Demand details. Don’t settle for vague assurances about reputable suppliers.
  • Know your supplier.
  • Buy from jewelers that make a commitment to ethical sourcing.
  • Look for diamonds mined in Canada (my personal favorite).

Think of those diamonds traced from a responsible source all the way through processing to a certification body such as the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). The GIA microscopically engraves a registration number onto the girdle of the diamond, thus, forever linking the physical item to its report of authenticity. Unfortunately, this practice isn’t implemented universally.

Does any of this sound familiar?

For too long now, the programmatic advertising industry has relied on blind trust when it comes to the buying and selling of goods. The Ads.txt initiative enables a similar methodology by “engraving” a piece of inventory with a certification of authenticity.  

Ads.txt is the mechanism that will give anyone in the supply chain the ability to validate their sources of media. In the not too distant future, if a buyer finds a great deal on video inventory from CBS.com in an obscure exchange, they can (and should) simply type https://cbs.com/ads.txt and see if that exchange is listed as an authorized seller of CBS video. If not, then it is either fake or its sale is unauthorized by CBS and should be avoided if not exposed.

A buyer of retail diamonds can afford to manually review each report of authenticity. However, programmatic advertising is all about huge volume, and machines are what make that volume possible. It is time to let those same machines take over the authentication of their media sources.

Any simple crawler can poll the domains of programmatic sources maintaining an updated database of publishers and their authorized resellers. This can in turn be queried as part of the transaction logic which can instantly eliminate bad sources of supply.

Like any great industry level innovation, what must happen next is broad and strategic adoption. If machines are to take on the task of honoring the wishes of the supplier, then we must be unambiguous about the instructions we give them. That said, the risk is low. In their wisdom, the authors of this guideline make the following statement:

“If the server response indicates the resource does not exist (HTTP Status Code 404), the advertising system can assume no declarations exist and that no advertising system is unauthorized to buy and sell ads on the website.”

This means a lack of action is non-destructive. You can not put the ads.txt file on your site and you will simply be considered open for resale to all parties. Yet the moment a publisher deploys ads.txt, they are choosing to take control of their identity and prevent any fraudulent misrepresentation of their name.

We should continue to:

  • Ask resellers where their inventory comes from.
  • Demand details. Don’t settle for vague assurances about reputable suppliers.
  • Know your supplier.
  • Buy from suppliers that make a commitment to ethical sourcing.

And we should bring systems online to check the authenticity of the inventory.

The introduction of ads.txt is a positive step towards a fully transparent ecosystem and a cause we will champion among our entire set of publisher and media company partners. Those who choose not to adopt are choosing to turn a blind eye and support trade in a product of which no one can be proud.

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