Ad Buyers Are Finally Getting Log-Level Data, but Transparency Has Its Difficulties

Marketers have more access to ad auction data, but it's often hard to use

Accessing log-level data helps marketers track every dollar they spend. Getty Images

Key insight:

Supply-side platforms are starting to bring more transparency to the dynamics of online ad auctions, but existing operations across the supply chain can slow the adoption of these offerings.

Media buyers have been asking SSPs for log-level data—detailed information about the ad auctions in which they participate—in earnest for the last two years as a way to better understand the costs associated with programmatic advertising.

Now, SSPs are starting to build products to streamline the auction process and make log-level data more easily available in a bid to provide buyers with much-needed transparency.

Log-level data is now easier to access

OpenX has introduced its transparency product, Bidding Intelligence Data Set (BIDS), which makes log-level reports available to buyers.

“Our end users on the buy side have been clamoring for more transparency into the space for a long time. We’re confident and … hopeful that this is a very positive step in that direction,” said Joey Leichman, vp of buyer development at OpenX.

Access to log-level information allows marketers to scrutinize every dollar they spend programmatically, and parsing through the data can also help them adjust and optimize future campaigns.

“[Asking for log-level data] started as an auditing mechanism, and it has evolved into a bidding strategy facilitator,” said Amanda Martin, vp of enterprise partnerships at Goodway Group, an independent programmatic planning and buying service.

Other SSPs also have similar transparency products. The widely used Index Exchange brought Client Audit Logs to market last September; Beachfront Media, a smaller SSP, introduced its product Clearvu late last year, too.

Sell-side tech is also becoming increasingly commoditized, so boosting transparency is a way to keep up with competitors and win favor with agencies, which are increasingly looking to form closer relationships with SSPs.

Earlier this year, both GroupM and Omnicom Media Group made pacts with SSPs to guarantee spend through their platforms in exchange for preferential access or discounts. OpenX also has similar deals to ensure business from major holding companies.

While agencies may prioritize scale or access to unique inventory when establishing preferred relationships with SSPs, Leichman said transparency products act as a “gut check.”

“You want to have this capability so that you can you prove out that you’re delivering on the details of the partnership in the way that you promised you would,” Leichman explained.

But it’s not always easy to implement

Last year, Havas Media Group slashed the vast majority of supply-side players it worked with for failing to provide the required levels of transparency.

Tom Kershaw, CTO of Magnite, the new company formed in the merger of Rubicon Project and Telaria, said transparency around log-level data is now table stakes. He said Magnite has a converged transparency product, which unified what Rubicon and Telaria had offered as separate companies.

While transparency is needed in what’s generally seen as an opaque industry, not every buy-side stakeholder, whether an agency or demand-side platform, is ready to integrate the data from these products into their operations, said Frank Sinton, president and founder of Beachfront Media, an independent platform for video ads.

“We thought adoption [of Clearvu] would be faster. The thing is to remember that there’s a lot of existing workflows. And as fast as you think something new would be adopted, it does take time to work it into the agency workflow,” said Sinton.

One company that wanted to bring transparency to ad auctions has already fallen by the wayside. AdFin, which worked to audit the programmatic supply chain, shuttered last October partly because it didn’t get wide enough adoption.

Ravi Patel, former CEO of AdFin, said the company was “a couple years” too early since brands and agencies weren’t yet investing in programmatic transparency like they are today.

“The difficulty was, how could [marketers] justify the cost because if you want transparency, it’s not cheap. … Log files are very expensive to mine and conjoin,” said Patel.

Turning raw data into actionable information

Leichman said introducing BIDS will hopefully “establish a baseline level of transparency that we hope to see more of moving forward.”

OpenX has built a transparency product for marketers after growing its buyer-facing team in May, which was preceded by 15% staff cuts in April.

BIDS is built on top of Snowflake, a cloud-based data warehouse. Leichman said marketers can access log-level data even if they’re not a Snowflake customer, but they do have to pay an “extraordinarily reasonable” fee to access the data to cover the costs associated with using the software.

Log-level data from SSPs also has to be matched with information from DSPs. Mike Moore, director of programmatic development at GroupM, said there’s often no connecting point between the two sets of data.

“What we have found is SSPs have their own auction ID, and DSPs will have their own impression ID, and there’s no join or key between the two,” said Moore. “Now we just have these two very, very large data sets that are very difficult to relate to each other.”

Martin also noted that log-level files aren’t “super user-friendly.”

“There’s a level of expertise to decipher and use the log files at this time, so I think it is a differentiation for buyers who can do that,” said Martin.

There’s also no standard way of defining log-level data. Different SSPs may be equally transparent about what happens in their auctions, but they categorize and define the information shared with the buy side in different ways.

Kershaw said helping agencies through this process will be a differentiator for SSPs.

“The next step of this is taking the raw data that is really hard to work with, and give agencies levers and tools [to] make that data into things they can decision on, things that can help their business,” said Kershaw.

Take-rate disclosure

One of the tech fees log files expose are take-rates, the cut SSPs charge to run a campaign through their platform. An OpenX spokesperson said take-rates within BIDS aren’t automatically shared, but the company can provide that information upon request.

SSPs negotiate take-rates with publishers. Often times, contractual agreements between the two sides prevent the SSP from disclosing the cut it takes from a given publisher. Instead, buyers can typically see take-rates by campaign, format or auction type, be it direct or in the open exchange.

Moore said clients should, for example, also evaluate whether inventory costs are inflated or if audience matching is difficult when examining log files, not just solely focus on take-rates.

“Racing to the bottom is something that we’ve seen play out badly across digital media, and so that’s our only caveat to this conversation,” said Moore.

@andrewblustein Andrew Blustein is a programmatic reporter at Adweek.