Unilever turns to IBM Blockchain tech to bring transparency

The digital advertising space has experienced a bumpy year as marketers, brands and agencies struggle to adapt to the increasingly complex world of data-driven advertising and the growing technology stacks needed to navigate it effectively.

The current landscape of ad tech, dominated by programmatic solutions and sometimes opaque business practices, has proven itself prone to misfires, mistakes and a lot of outright ad fraud – not to mention growing brand safety concerns.

The growing discontent among brands with digital advertising bubbled up to the surface last year at the IAB’s annual Leadership Summit, when Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard took to the stage to deliver a scathing opinion of the industry, topped with an announcement that the company would be drastically revamping its contracts with vendors to ensure transparency by requiring tag certification for all its media suppliers. Pritchard’s speech sent shockwaves throughout the industry and spurred many vendors and publishers to join transparency and brand safety initiatives.

Stakeholders on both the buy-side and the sell-side have financial incentives to help reduce, if not eradicate, these problems as TV advertisers look to shift more ad dollars to digital. But it’s taken more stick than carrot to move the needle. After Pritchard’s scolding, ANA’s report found ad fraud has declined – for the first time ever – by 10% over the last year.

But the IAB summit faced a similar tirade again this year, only from a different brand. Last week, Unilever’s chief marketing officer, representing the second largest advertiser in the world, threatened to pull advertising from publishers like Google and Facebook unless those publishers can deliver more guarantees around brand safety and transparency. Unilever, which owns brands such as Dove, Axe, Lipton and PG Tips, spent about $2.45 billion in digital advertising in 2017.

In order to combat ad fraud and advertising discrepancies which are currently endemic to programmatic solutions, Unilever has partnered with IBM to devise an advertising blockchain program which tracks how media is purchased and delivered. The solution will be able to find discrepancies in things like inventory purchases and campaign performance daily, giving marketers the ability to save money by fixing these problems quickly. It can also use blockchain to track insertion orders and payments. The two companies have been testing the solution for the past seven months, and plan to roll it out in phases.

At the IAB Leadership Summit, Weed said that, moving forward, Unilever will not work with advertising partners who cannot meet basic requirements around brand safety and transparency.

Meanwhile, IAB has a new sheriff in town, and he has been handed the whole mess. Speaking at the summit, incoming chairman Scott Schiller, who is EVP and GM of marketing, advertising sales and client partnerships at NBCUniversal, declared he’ll see to it that the industry steers itself in a new direction.

Schiller acknowledged the little progress made in the past year, including initiatives such as IAB’s own ads.txt, the Digital Advertising Alliance and the Coalition for Better Ads but said that’s not enough. “We can do more,” he said.

Brands may not have much faith left in those types of promises. As trust between brands, agencies, ad tech vendors, and publishers has eroded over the last 12 to 18 months, marketers have begun moving their programmatic strategies in-house, rather than outsourcing them to third parties. A recent study from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) found that a third of marketer respondents to its survey reported that they were uncomfortable with the lack of transparency of programmatic solutions, citing things like hidden fees and lack of insight on where the ads run. A whopping 78% said they were concerned about brand safety in programmatic.