Two years ago, Uber filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against its agency partner Fetch, accusing it of running fraudulent ads. Now it looks as if the ride-hailing giant is taking the legal battle further down the supply chain.
According to court documents unsealed this week, the recently IPO’d ride-booking company is suing five mobile ad-tech companies—along with roughly 100 unnamed third parties that they worked with—in addition to its agency partner.
This update alleges that the additional companies were collectively paid $70 million to buy out ad space for Uber that turned out, upon review, to be inventory that was “nonexistent, non-viewable, or fraudulent” and purchased deliberately. According to the document, Uber was deliberately kept out of the loop regarding the true nature of where its ads were running.
“These ad networks even placed Uber ads on porn sites and Breitbart in direct violation of our paid advertising requirements,” an Uber spokesperson told Adweek. “To make matters worse, they actively falsified reports to claim they were running our ads on legitimate sites.”
The ad-tech vendors named in the lawsuit—Hydrane SAS, BidMotion, Taptica, YouAppi and AdAction—did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.
Uber operates its ad business on a “last-click attribution model,” meaning that it pays only for ad placements leading to users installing the company’s app, signing up for the ride-hailing service or taking their first trip in its vehicles.
Impressions and clicks without some sort of outcome, in other words, don’t count to its media buyer’s bottom line. To track this customer journey, Uber partnered with Tune, a third-party analytics platform, to harvest mobile data on how many eyeballs and clicks its ads were getting, plus verifying if any led to an eventual app install.
What transpired, according to the latest documents, was that Fetch passed the media-buying duties onto these five companies, who took credit for hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of installs that they didn’t deserve, by faking clicks, faking app installations or both.
“This is a complex kind of fraud that nobody really knows how to identify well,” explained Asaf Greiner, the CEO of ad-verification company Protected Media. Part of the complexity, he said, is due to the innate complexity of the ad-tech chain of command that Uber was working with.
“Agencies don’t have a lot of exposure to what’s happening in these cases, and brands have even less,” he added. “Even less so when the agency is breaking attribution down between hundreds of different networks, like Fetch did here.”
It’s a statement that underscores how tangled the path from a brand to a publisher has become in the age of ad tech.
“Transparency” has become something of a de facto rallying call for ad-tech outfits of all sizes, as they seek to fight fraud and cut down on the so-called ad-tech tax that’s estimated to swipe more than 60 cents of every marketing dollar. Though some transparency tools—ads.txt, for example—have been rolled out with a good deal of fanfare, the truth is that they often don’t live up to expectations, as multiple sources told Adweek in a recent report.