Ads.txt - a publisher’s perspective

February 7, 2018

By Alvaro Bolivar, VP Product Management, Oath and Shawna Larkowski, Principal Manager, Product Marketing, Oath

It hasn't been long since the IAB debuted the ads.txt protocol with the lofty goal of reducing unauthorized reselling of inventory, and bringing much needed transparency to the digital advertising ecosystem. With various estimates placing adoption at near 50% of the top 10,000 domains in November 2017 and 53,390 total publishers as of December 2017, it's clear that many publishers have embraced ads.txt to protect their interests. Buyers too are loving the increased transparency and accountability this brings to their supply relationships.

Oath is supporting the industry-wide ads.txt initiative by partnering with both DSPs and supply sources to facilitate the enforcement of ads.txt files by our DSP partners. Oath has implemented ads.txt across our media properties and will begin enforcing across our ad platforms globally; we've also launched an ads.txt self- generator tool for video publishers. We support industry-wide transparency and trust, and played a key role in advising the IAB on bringing ads.txt to market.

That said, ads.txt is not a one-size-fits-all solution. After navigating the ads.txt waters as a large and diverse publisher, we'd like to highlight some of our learnings and how others in the digital advertising community can apply them. Various publications have covered some of the areas where ads.txt has "kinks," as one Digiday article put it, but there has been little discussion around potential impact for premium video specifically, where the ecosystem and supply chain is far more complex.

In display advertising, publishers working with one or more resellers can probably estimate their partner's list of resellers, the bulk of which are likely well-known SSPs and DSPs. Whereas in video, the ecosystem is ripe with content-distributor relationships, syndication partners, content studios, intricate waterfalls, and first right of sale relationships. The legitimate partners in play for video monetization are quite varied, and often not apparent tothe original content creator who doesn't necessarily control the ads.txt file of the publisher.

1. Implementing ads.txt as a large video publisher and distributor is no easy feat.

For Oath, with premium video inventory and distribution/syndication relationships with the world's largest broadcasters, content studios and other publishers, this required a massive audit. After implementing ads.txt on our properties, we saw an immediate decline in revenue — not because of any domain spoofing or unauthorized selling, but simply because the complexity of rights agreements and partnerships for a publisher our size required an even deeper audit across every relationship.

For example, let's say a publisher like HuffPost has a content partnership with a broadcaster, to distribute their content on the HuffPost site. This partnership gives the broadcaster first monetization rights of ad inventory alongside its video content on HuffPost. However, unknowingly, HuffPost's ads.txt file may not list all of the broadcaster's ad servers, SSPs and other demand. That means the broadcaster's inventory would falsely appear to be unauthorized. This can be avoided if publishers complete a full video-centric audit of not only their demand partners, but of any other content or right of sale partner.

We are bringing this to light to help fellow publishers (who, like Oath, take inventory quality and fraud protection very seriously) understand what a dip in revenue or complaints from buyers may mean. For this reason, Oath is offering buyers the ability to make the decision if they wish to bid or transact on inventory passed as unauthorized. DSPs will have the ability to block any unauthorized traffic at the SSP level for Oath's video platforms, but we do not force this as the default for any buyers who may not feel comfortable with potential limitations.

Ads.txt is excellent at weeding out non-value added middlemen, but there is an opportunity cost required to participate — not only in the initial audit, but in ongoing maintenance as partnerships and rights agreements shift continually. Publishers and advertisers should plan for recurring audits and review periods of their txt files.

2. Global publishers with differing agreements or rights management by region must be extra careful.

It's very common for publishers with global properties or audiences to have technology partnerships or monetization rights that vary by region. Blanket adding a direct or reseller partner in an ads.txt file may violate contractual agreements or open your inventory up to domain spoofing opportunities that the protocol is meant to prevent. These scenarios and regional rights agreements are most prevalent when it comes to premium video.

Oath's audience and publisher properties span the globe, and we partner very specifically market by market to deliver local audiences the best content and consumer experience. This due diligence to ensure ads.txt honors global requirements is one publishers cannot take lightly.

3. Hybrid placements across display and video add an additional layer of complexity.

VAST and VPAID wrappers enable publisher monetization partners to have hybrid placement units (i.e. standard IAB display units with an embedded in-banner video). In the future, we anticipate hybrid native and video placements.

Whether these hybrid units are considered best practice or allowable by the publisher is a subjective question. But given the different specifications in an ads.txt listing for different types of ad units — be they video, banner, or otherwise — hybrid placements are an additional area where publishers must be cognizant. It could mean giving up potential higher revenue opportunities by only listing video versus display and video (if they allow in-banner video), or opening up themselves to an unintended user experience if they are indiscriminate about which ad units are listed with a partner likely to serve video ads to display units.

Conclusion

Oath is working to bridge the implementation gaps and bringing more transparency to the world of video and to our publisher clients with best practices. We will continue to work with the IAB to guide publishers on correct implementation, potential changes, and monitoring. We understand publisher pain points and concerns because we've had to adopt ads.txt on some of the industry's largest platforms. The launch of our ads.txt self-serve validator and generator tool will help publishers more easily and effectively implement ads.txt.

This tool will help any publisher with video inventory transacting in ONE by AOL: Video see who is currently selling their inventory, add or restrict those direct partners and resellers, and automatically generate an ads.txt file. The generator also eases the complexity of creating and maintaining ads.txt files, and helps to avoid the frequent errors that can lead to revenue breakage. Check out the generator tool.