Unilever’s Planned Publisher Network Leaves Some Experts Skeptical

They say it puts the onus on the entirely wrong party

A whitelist for publishers might not be the silver bullet that the corporate giant intended. Getty Images

Unilever’s Trusted Publisher Program—essentially a whitelist of publishers—was introduced under the guise of better battling fraud, but some experts are skeptical, saying they’ve seen this movie before.

Industry experts muttered under their breath during the announcement by the consumer-packaged-goods company (CPG) about how Unilever has made claims like this before in the name of stopping fraud.

One ad fraud expert, who requested anonymity to avoid industry backlash, referred to Unilever as a “revolving doorway” of claims like this. “We’ve seen them—and other big players take these steps before,” the source said, “but usually, it doesn’t pan out.”

Most notably, at the 2018 IAB Annual Leadership Summit, where soon-to-be-departing CMO Keith Weed took to the stage calling for the tech platforms to shape up, or not receive any of the CPG’s $9 billion in advertising money. And this came a year after CMO brother-in-arms Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble made a similar clarion call.

Meanwhile, others have claimed that the idea of a network of trusted publishers puts the onus on the entirely wrong party.

“Publishers—like advertisers—are far more often the victims of fraud then they are the perpetrators,” said Will Luttrell, CEO of Amino Payments. While it might be fair to hold these parties accountable for the content on their page—insofar as not allowing pop-ups and invasive malware—fraud is entirely out of their wheelhouse, he said.

“The major publishers are equally unhappy that there’s money diverted away from their properties,” he said. “I mean, we’re all for large brands holding people accountable—but this has nothing to do with the folks at the end of the advertising supply chain.”

This roll out, Luttrell said, has nothing to do with publishers, and everything to do with the intermediary layers of the advertising supply chain—the DSPs, SSPs, and ad exchanges they function within. “It’s pretty easy to pick on most publishers, since they’re at the end of the money train,” he said. “But I actually see this as Unilever saying that ‘Hey, we don’t necessarily trust our ad-tech partners to give us brand-safe, bot-free, quality content. I think this is a warning shot for them.”

In essence, Unilever’s move isn’t about slicing off publishers from its supply—it’s about supply path optimization, or SPO. This, from a high level, is essentially a way for demand-side platforms to separate the “wheat from the chaff,” Luttrell said, by eliminating exchanges over the advertising chain-of-command that could be duplicative, or wasting revenue. By slicing off a number of publishers, he added, there’s no doubt that Unilever is cutting out some of these ad-tech partners—and saving money at the same time.

“This is Unilever doing the legwork that its partnering DSPs and ad exchanges should have already been doing,” he said. “This is their way of saying that they have no trust in these systems.”

A spokesperson for Unilever declined to comment.

This could tick off quite a few advertisers, who could be shocked that cutting off the internet’s long tail negatively impacts their bottom line.

“This programmatic strategy is little more than having direct relationships with a select group of publishers—which is something that they already do, and something that everyone talks about,” said Asaf Greiner, the CEO of Protected Media. “It’s a move that they take because they’re scared, and they’ve given up on the ability to verify the traffic from a particular locale.”

As Greiner pointed out, some of the brands pumping their advertising dollars through Unilever’s pipes might find themselves disappointed to find out that core chunks of their target audience resides on more niche sites or internet alleys that Unilever excluded from their trusted program.

“There’s hundreds of millions of publishers in the world, and though Unilever isn’t telling us how many they’re working with—it might be 100, or it might be 10,000—someone’s getting left out,” said Greiner. Meanwhile, he added, the money that was being diverted there is increasingly flowing into walled gardens that promise, among other things, a brand safe experience.

“The groups buying into this are playing a dangerous game,” he explained. “They’re so worried about the risk of fraud that they’re playing into the hands of a very large and sophisticated ad platform. Unilever’s latest push is just another step in the race to the bottom.”

Meanwhile, the publishers outside of those walled gardens will only be further incentivized to make up for the inevitable drop in traffic that comes with hacking off particular publishing channels—either through legitimate means or otherwise. Even if you vet the publishers you work with, Greiner explained, you need to continually be vigilant of who you’re working with—otherwise you’ll just end up with the same behavior we saw across the rest of the web.

“With this kind of strategy, you have to be very careful that you’re not pushing your suppliers into a position where they’re curbing to your demand, and eventually provide you with the same things you’re trying to eradicate,” said Greiner. “And I’m not sure Unilever is prepared to take that step.”

@swodinsky shoshana.wodinsky@adweek.com Shoshana Wodinsky is Adweek's platforms reporter, where she covers the financial and societal impacts of major social networks. She was previously a tech reporter for The Verge and NBC News.