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08 . 05 . 20

Publishers only earning 50% on online advertising

Words by: Print Power
The strong growth of programmatic advertising does not deliver similar growth to publishers as is shown by a recent study from ISBA and PwC in the UK. Publishers’ revenues are only half of the advertising cost paid by the advertisers. 50% of the advertising costs disappears in what Marc Pritchard (P&G brand chief) called a ‘murky media value chain’.

The ISBA/PwC is the first study involving actual campaigns from premium brands. It shows the dramatic ineffectiveness of online ads matching the right audiences. With print also slowly shifting to programmatic print questions might be raised about the value benefits for publishers.

The Power of Print in a glance

  • Only 12% of all ad impressions paid for can be matched
  • Publishers receive just over half (51%) of programmatic spend
  • The supply chain "has been deliberately designed with opacity in mind"

In a first-of-its-kind study, ISBA (the trade body for UK advertisers) and PwC found that only 12% of ad impressions can be accounted for.

The sheer scale of lost adspend, disorganisation and murkiness in the £2bn programmatic advertising supply chain has been laid bare in a first-of-its-kind report by trade body ISBA and auditors at PwC. 

The advertiser-funded ISBA Programmatic Supply Chain Transparency Study found that only a fraction (12%) of 267 million ad impressions, paid for by brands to be served on publishers’ websites, could be accounted for or "matched".

The rest could not be mapped due to low data quality, analysts from PwC found, citing huge difficulties in getting like-for-like data from various players in the ecosystem.

From that fraction of ads that were matched, PwC found that, on average, nearly one in six (15%) of advertising pounds spent on these ads are being lost in the system. This "unknown delta" represents money that is spent on programmatic ads but can’t be found to have been delivered as an ad that an internet user has actually viewed. 


Meanwhile, just over half (51%) of spend is received by publishers, with the remainder going towards various fees charged by demand side platforms and supply side platforms. 

However, Sam Tomlinson, partner at PwC, told Campaign that the true amount of unaccounted inventory and spend in the programmatic system is likely to be higher than the report shows, given that this study focused on premium advertisers.

Tomlinson said: "This is a snapshot of the most premium end of programmatic. We think it would be a safe hypothesis that if you looked at unmatched impression on the longer tail of tech vendors, absolutely you would find less money reaching publishers – a larger unknown delta."

While ad fraud may be a significant driver on why programmatic adspend is being lost, Tomlinson stressed that the purpose of the study was to look at matched impressions (impressions would not be matched if lost to fraud).

Revenue is lost through these mechanics as a result of obfuscation, manipulation, unilateral adjustments and …. in such a way that neither buyer nor seller knows what really has happened.
Danny Spears
Chief operating officer at The Ozone Project

"We don’t think that programmatic is Machiavellian; we just think it's a mess because of the way it has evolved," he added.

BT, one of 15 advertisers that took part in the research, is now warning that it will cut back on programmatic media spend if the industry does not come up with common standards and more openness. 

Graeme Adams, head of media at BT Group, said: "While digital display is an effective sales driver for us, the findings of the study are stark: there is a big hole in the value chain.

"We desperately need to see a common set of standards adopted and more openness in this market, so that every penny spent is accounted for. If this happens, we’ll invest more in the channel; if not, we will cut back and reshape our trading approaches."

The study, run over 15 months in association with the Association of Online Publishers and carried out by PwC, marks the first time that programmatic advertising supply chains – the way in which advertisers and publishers are served by the programmatic ad delivery system – have been mapped from end to end anywhere in the world.

Danny Spears, chief operating officer at The Ozone Project, which handles digital advertising for The Guardian, Reach, the Telegraph and News UK brands, told Campaign that he was not surprised that only 12% of impressions could be matched in the study, given that the supply chain "has been deliberately designed with opacity in mind".

He added: "It's definitely a worry for publishers and it should be for marketers too… Revenue is lost through these mechanics as a result of obfuscation, manipulation, unilateral adjustments and other means of value extraction, and in such a way that neither buyer nor seller knows what really has happened. This is particularly prevalent in open market programmatic, where there is significantly less traceability and accountability than with premium publisher deals."

Spears noted that he sees publishers becoming more selective with the partners they work with and the terms on which they do business. While some work with a small numbers of SSPs, others choose to work with more in order to benefit from a greater volume of ad impressions. 

Tomlinson told Campaign: "We would be supportive of publishers using less SSPs and manage them more closely.

Article first appeared in Campaign May 6 2020 “Programmatic market a 'mess' with half of money still not reaching publishers” by Omar Oakes