Cache Back! Bid Caching & the Problem with Ad Tech Innovation
“Tech that claims to be innovative, blind to the damage it causes, could be the overriding theme of our times.”
Bid caching is the latest new phrase to enter the ad tech lexicon. In this case, it’s a questionable honour, at least for the platform outed as holding onto real-time bids, only to serve them on alternative pages, later in the user session. This is also the first many buyers have even heard of the practice, even if it’s been going for a year already. What followed was a roller coaster of paused spend, recriminations, people disappointed in their own transparency levels – and the eventual pausing of the bid caching feature itself.
Why all the fuss? Partly, we need to see cache back-gate in context – as just the latest in a series of examples of ad tech ‘information asymmetry’. In other words, of certain players bending the rules for their own monetary gain. But also, in a level up from the emergence of first price auctions, with bid caching we also see an intermediary using tech to underhandedly deliver a different product from what the client paid for. Or, as one commentator called it, having one product swapped out for another at the checkout.
Dentsu Aegis Chief Optimiser Simon Harris was quick off the mark with a slide outlining a full list of bid caching ‘risks’, among them paying over the odds (placement comes later in the user session than the one paid for), brand safety (ad is served on a different page to the one paid for) and quality (eventual placement has lower viewability than the original.)
What about the case for the defence? Index has claimed bid caching improves the user experience, citing an RTB protocol clause around the caching of creative to optimise ad loads. Further doubt was cast in the programmatic courtroom by a test from Jounce Media showing that in fact, as many as 50% of impressions were being cached – which excluded completely the specific media (video and mobile app) the defendant claimed most in need of optimising.
Innovation in Ad Tech
The more honest admission would have been that, at least in the short-term, bid caching makes you money. And hopefully for your direct customers (in this case, publishers) too. Nothing wrong with that. But does a feature Index Exchange calls an ‘innovation’ still merit that name, if longer-term it reduces trust in a sector already distinctly lacking in that quality? Plenty of studies, such as Akerlof’s ‘Market for Lemons’ prove the risk outweighs the profit in such short-term tactics.
Tech that claims to be innovative, blind to the damage it causes, could be the overriding theme of our times. It is all around us from Uber’s Greyball, to Theranos or the Facebook news feed, especially during the US Elections or in Myanmar. It is also more than anything else responsible for a growing antipathy to the technology sector at large.
True innovation means solving genuine problems, creating new ways of working that benefit the entire ecosystem. That said, the idea that every advance must necessarily disadvantage another party seems especially prevalent in ad tech. But such views are not a given – they’re a symptom of a monoculture crying out for new, more diverse tactics and approaches.
“The idea that every advance must necessarily disadvantage another party seems especially prevalent in ad tech. But such views are not a given – they’re a symptom of a monoculture crying out for new, more diverse tactics and approaches.”
How Advertisers Can Navigate the Next Wave of ‘Innovation’
- Learning moment – with many brands unaware bid caching even existed, some commentators observed lessons needed to be learned. Were DSPs aware of it? And if not, why not – all questions worth asking of your tech partner, along with the measures they are putting in place not just to prevent it in future, but also to spot and shut down the next ‘innovation’ of this ilk.
- Trust but Verify – not all ad tech is dishonest, but that doesn’t mean it deserves your unconditional trust. In the words of one of the architects of the RTB protocol, “trust, but verify.” In the case of bid caching, log level data should have shown a mismatch between bid request and bid response ID. Clearly no one is going to check every detail of every bid request. But just as companies have had to implement more robust data management regimes under GDPR – shouldn’t this apply to media buying too?
- Tech for your Tech – the temptation, as always, is for more advanced ways to ‘set and forget’, and so more advanced technical solutions to weed out shady tactics. But, at least so far, adding more tech has not proved a solution to tech-related opacity. If anything, reduce your reliance on multiple partners. Look to internal resources to develop robust, verifiable, human processes to check for anomalies.
- Be a ‘Secret Shopper’ – If in doubt, there’s no substitute to testing and mimicking your customer in the exchange. Are all parties performing as they’re supposed to, whether that’s around fees or placements? – the Guardian has done just this in the past, to weed out both hidden fees and fraud.
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