"Brands need to clean up their act". Julia Smith on ad fraud and new digital landscape
Interview with The Digital Voice founder, digital advertising professional
Julia Smith is the founder of the digital consultancy The Digital Voice and Director of PR and Communications at Adverty, Impact, The Channel Factory, and Cavai. She has more than 25 years of experience in digital communications and advertising, PR, digital ad fraud prevention, and programmatic trading. In 2016, Julia was voted by the industry as being in the top 5 Digital Trading Leaders 2016 at The Drum Digital Trading Awards.

On May 21, Julia Smith will attend the Adsider LIVE Conference. We spoke to her about the digital advertising trends, brand safety and battling fraud.
Name the trends that will define the digital advertising industry in 2020?

If advertisers aren't more careful with their ad supply chains, there will be action from law enforcement on ad-funded piracy and digital ad fraud. As part of the same shift, we're also going to see a call to arms on transparency, and inefficient intermediaries are going to be called to account.

How will the digital advertising landscape change after the quarantine?

A simplification of the ecosystem is long overdue and much needed, to be honest. Everyone involved needs to prove their value and show they perform. I think a greater amount of working from home is likely to become the norm, and that will no longer be seen as a negative. On the basis of what we have all learned from organising successful and effective virtual events on platforms like Remo, I think there is also going to be a push to cut back on senseless foreign travel and take more networking events online.
If advertisers aren't more careful with their ad supply chains, there will be action from law enforcement
Have you noticed brands adjusting their marketing budgets already? What do you think is the right strategy in these circumstances?

Not as much as you would expect, and I would say that is the correct response. The right strategy is not to pull back, but to be more considered and to focus on what works. One positive thing we are seeing is that smaller agencies seem to be holding their own. That's not to knock the big agencies at all, but being agile and having a lower overhead are useful attributes at a time like this.

Another positive thing that various people have remarked upon is that they have never had so many positive responses to meeting requests. Important people seem to be much more receptive to meetings, demos and pitches than usual. One of my clients, Impact, has just recorded their strongest week ever for BDR meetings. I don't know if that's because we're all at home, or we're all out of our routines and open to looking at things differently, but it's certainly a welcome trend.

Is it time to cut the spending and campaigns, or should brands do more in order to reach their target audience during this crisis?

Do more, but do it right. By all means spend time working on CSR initiatives, but don't jump on the bandwagon and try to shoehorn your brand into some ill-fitting Save The NHS campaign just because that's what other people are doing. From a proactive marketing perspective, move budgets into developing areas where you might not ordinarily have risked putting them — mobile or in-game advertising. What haven't you tried that you might be able to negotiate a good rate on? Or focus on performance channels where you get exactly the ROI you pay for.
Don't jump on the bandwagon and try to shoehorn your brand into some ill-fitting Save The NHS campaign
What were the main three positive changes you've noticed in the industry for the last five years?

I think we are gradually becoming a kinder business with a more sympathetic and understanding working environment, especially when it comes to people's work-life balance. There is more diversity, too, and you can see that at speaking events, on judging panels and in representations in the press. And thirdly, brands have a voice now, and they are involved in the conversation. For too long, ad tech and publishers were at the table, talking about what brands want, but you weren't seeing those brands themselves, and now you are.

You've been recognized for your work with IAB. What is the importance of such "overseeing" organizations and what are the main achievements you are proud of (during your work with IAB)?

When I was head of IASH, we looked to tackle brand safety. That got an important ball rolling, and it kicked off my own close involvement with brands in the fraud and brand-suitability space.

As the crisis develops, will marketers face a surge of fraud? How can they keep themself safe?

Well, don't buy fraudulent impressions — that's the main thing. Do use tools, do use solutions, do follow the standards that have been laid down by the Digital Trading Standards Group, JICWEBS, TAG and PIPCU. Brands need to understand that it is their job to be compliant, because enforcement is coming.
Brands have a voice now, and they are involved in the conversation
How much money are advertisers losing to ad fraud? What types of fraud are the most dangerous ones right now, in your opinion?

Last year, GroupM put the cost of ad fraud at $22.4 billion globally, which is just huge. The biggest threat among those is non-human web traffic. There's always a new bot, and the ones that fuel malware are particularly troubling. We need to use tech to fight tech. And marketers need to buy quality, and don't fish in the polluted pool that is the open auction, unless you have the technology to protect you.

What are the main risk marketers have to deal with right now?

The main threat in the immediate future is the threat of the long arm of the law if your advertising isn't compliant. And then there's the reputational damage if you are found to be funding ad-funded piracy and digital ad fraud. Brands need to clean up their act before it gets cleaned up for them.

Name the main brand safety concerns the companies are dealing with right now. How to ensure your brand's advertisements don't show up next to undesirable content?

Covid-19, of course, is the big one. And it's not necessarily as simple as just avoiding it, because it is so prevalent and the contexts in which it appears are so diverse. So the answer is to apply common sense, activate your inclusion list, not just your exclusion list, and zone in on the content where you want to be seen, Covid-related or otherwise. Look for credible, reputable publishers and avoid sweeping, over-cautious exclusions.
I'm getting to attend a lot more virtual events than I ever could physical ones
The social aspect. With everything that's going on, what should brands and marketers do to support the industry and people within it?

Brands need to pay it forward and leave no-one behind. Look after each other, open your doors to people, offer a hand. I'm seeing so many people working pro bono while they are furloughed, for instance.

All the offline events for the year are probably off. How do you adapt your work with all these cancellations? What were the difficulties of having to move everything online?

I love virtual conferences. A lot of us who travel abroad for all these conferences every month are enjoying being able to buy back time. I'm getting to attend a lot more virtual events than I ever could physical ones, and I'm going to be working with a lot more our Digital Voice clients and my networking groups to do virtual networking events in Remo.

How did your average day change with all that's going on in the world?

Realistically, it hasn't changed all that much. We are set up to work with our clients from home offices anyway, and we have actually welcomed more clients since the lockdown.

Please give us a little insight into your speech at the conference.

It's going to be top tips on ad fraud and brand safety and suitability — a whirlwind guide to everything you need to know in half an hour. You will walk out armed and ready to protect yourself — no excuses.

What are three things you absolutely need to stay sane and motivated during the quarantine?

Exercise. A good sense of humour. And connecting: take those calls, play quizzes, interact with people online, even if you don't feel like it on a Friday night. You may well find you were glad you did.
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