Knock-Knock: How Companies Are Trying To Weasel Their Way Onto Publishers' Ads.txt Files

The ad buyers who will be hurt by the adoption of Ads.txt aren’t giving up without a fight.

Publishers are being deluged with emails from “agencies” and “digital marketing solutions” companies threatening to stop buying inventory unless they’re added to the Ads.txt file.

The New York Times, Wenner Media, Intermarkets and LittleThings all confirmed to AdExchanger they had received emails from partners angling to become part of the publishers’ Ads.txt files.

But the publishers have the leverage. It’s the buyers who are at risk because if they aren’t added to Ads.txt, they can’t resell the publisher’s inventory. If that’s their only business model, they’re in trouble.

Often, publishers have never heard of the companies sending them emails, which often contain strange requests or misleading or false information.

“Technically, Ads.txt is very sound. But as with most types of fraud, social engineering is the weak link,” said Pooja Kapoor, head of global strategy, programmatic and ecosystem health at Google. “I am concerned that social engineering will hit some of the torso and tail [publishing] partners, and will cause some of the behavior we are trying to prevent.”

In other words, sellers can be tricked.

A Case Study In Deception

On Tuesday, a top comScore publisher posted one of these emails, from “video media agency” Thrive+, to the Reddit Ad Ops board, where it attracted more than 50 responses.

In the email, Thrive+ head Fiona Walsh wrote: "Thrive+ has been purchasing a substantial amount of your ad inventory through various ad exchanges over the past year on behalf of our advertising clients and needs your assistance to continue. … If you do not add the IDs you will be adversely impacted.”

The poster, who declined to be named without permission from their employer, posted it to the forum to warn others of the “shady” behavior.

“Ads.txt is confusing to a lot of people, and [some companies] are trying to take advantage of the confusion and people who do not know better,” the poster told AdExchanger.

So far, not many publishers have taken the bait.

An ad tech company familiar with publisher Ads.txt files identified at least two top-rated comScore sites listing “thrive.plus.” In contrast, 44% of the Alexa top 10,000 have implemented Ads.txt.

When contacted by AdExchanger, Walsh, who heads the company, said Thrive+ works with 100 publishers directly, but she would only name one that had added an Ads.txt file: Dingit.tv.

Getting publishers to add Thrive+ to their Ads.txt was a top priority, she said, which is why she sent those emails.

“The initiative is to have all of them updated as soon as possible,” Walsh said. “My relationship with SpotX, Google and AOL is all contingent on having an Ads.txt file there, otherwise they don’t want to see a call on me.”

But since Thrive+ had never worked directly with the publisher whose employee posted on Reddit, it’s not clear why Walsh reached out.

In the email, she claimed Thrive+ published a “substantial amount” of the publisher’s inventory, yet on the phone she conceded that it hadn’t.

“If we are going to start spending, they have to sign an IO and take an ad tag. That’s the only way we can conduct new business, and I think it says that in the email,” Walsh said.

Later, in a follow-up email to AdExchanger, she said Thrive+ will also buy a publisher’s inventory programmatically, or that publishers will “implement our players directly on their sites.”

Walsh could not provide AdExchanger with an example of what that video player looked like, but in a later exchange said it uses outstream units as well as a “sponsored content” ad unit that cycles between pre-roll and syndicated content.

The publisher who posted the Thrive+ letter on Reddit found two other red flags about Thrive+’s request.

Walsh wanted all the exchanges it sold to listed as “direct,” not as a “reseller,” on Ads.txt, which is incorrect according to the spec. Listing Thrive+ as direct makes it seem as if it, and not the publisher, owns the inventory. And direct sellers are often held to different standards than resellers on exchanges.

And most of the exchanges where Thrive+ wanted to be listed as a “direct” seller had questionable reputations.

“These are [exchange] domains that we see when we see problematic ads in our site, like when they load a video player into a 300x250 and use that video player to request ads,” the publisher source said.

Thrive+’s Walsh said it did not practice display-to-video arbitrage, one way resellers can make an easy profit. “That is not the requested format by advertisers,” she said. “Thrive does not and never has bought display inventory and stuffed video into it via a programmatic ad buying platform.”

Still, the high CPMs, low supply and high demand in video attract bad actors. Publishers see the most domain spoofing of their video inventory, and programmatic video fraud is rampant.

Navigating Muddy Waters

Thrive+ is far from the only company trying to get into a publisher’s Ads.txt file.

Wenner Media recently received a similar request from Blue Water Ads, said Blythe Brock, director of programmatic advertising.

Blue Water emailed Wenner, asking to set up a programmatic campaign that required an Ads.txt implementation. “Blue Water Ads must be confirmed as an Authorized Digital Seller (or be implemented as a Ads.txt partner on publisher site prior to launch date),” the email stated. “Client DSP will not return an ad response if the above requirements are not satisfied.”

Wenner Media did not add the file.

Ads.txt does not prevent a company like Blue Water Ads from buying a publisher’s inventory – only from unauthorized reselling.

So when should publishers add a party to their Ads.txt file?

“It’s like a marriage,” said Sara Badler, director of programmatic advertising at The New York Times, which works with just a “handful” of partners. “We have contracts in place, and we have meetings weekly or monthly.”

“We choose our SSP partners very carefully,” said the publisher who posted about Thrive+ on Reddit. “We have MSAs [master services agreements] signed with them, a dedicated account contact, and are in contact with them on a weekly, monthly and daily basis,” the publisher said.

But there’s a reason why emails like this work. They appeal to publishers’ fear of losing revenue.

“Don’t add someone to an Ads.txt file if you haven’t been working with them already,” advised Erik Requidan, VP of sales and programmatic strategy at Intermarkets. “It sounds simple in practice, but some folks are desperate to hit their number at the end of the year.”

Update: SpotX, who Thrive+ listed as a partner in its email inquiries, informed AdExchanger that it terminated its relationship with the company after learning about the practices detailed in this article.

Update:  In documentation provided to AdExchanger, Blue Water Ads indicated that its request to be listed on Ads.txt came in the context of a deal negotiation, so its outreach to the publisher wasn't strictly unsolicited. Blue Water Ads also stated its request only covered "reseller" and not "direct" tags, except in one instance.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this, Sarah - this is a hugely important read for publishers so they aren't taken advantage of. The Thrive.plus reddit thread yesterday was also a powerful deterrent (I hope) for any company thinking they can dupe publishers given the consequences of being publicly called out.

    Reply
  2. Great article, something that a lot of publishers have been asking Telaria about. This coupled with more open source coding will clean up the industry thus reducing waste and tearing down walled gardens.

    Reply
  3. I would recommend readers fully read the thread on reddit. There is some controversy regarding ads.txt, the usage of it and what constitutes "best practice". Some publishers are very strict about who they let through the gates with strong controls in place while other publishers have limited options and are open to working with multiple resellers. This discussion isn't over yet and ads.txt still isn't a one size fits all solution as we make it out to be.

    Reply
  4. Neal Richter

    Here's simple guidance. Any entry a publisher puts in ads.txt should be for an account on an SSP/Exchange that it owns or controls and mark it with "DIRECT". If the pub has put another entity in the business of reselling its inventory then put that entities data in the file marked as RESELLER. If the pub is not able to understand how it's getting paid by an entity asking to be included, then ask a lot of questions.

    Reply

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