Blockchain in Advertising: What’s the Deal?

Paul Gubbins, Unruly’s Programmatic Lead and all-round expert in everything adtech, shares his thoughts on blockchain and what it means for the advertising industry.   

“Two years ago I was firmly on the fence…”

“This week I was lucky enough to join a blockchain panel hosted by Propel in London. Alongside me was an agency CEO, a managing partner of a digital transformation consultancy and the co-founder of The Fintech Times.

There was a genuine mix of experience and perspectives on the panel, as well as in the in the room when it came to the subject of distributed ledgers. My lens is the world of adtech and what the eventual application of blockchain could mean for those who buy and sell digital ads via programmatic plumbing such as the OpenRTB protocol.

During the panel, I was struck by the interesting use cases for blockchain and some its real world applications. There were stories of blockchain being used by logistics companies in smart contracts,  or in the distribution of frozen foods around the globe to reduce wastage and streamline costs. Other uses included authenticating everything from art, diamonds and luxury watches to (of course) ad impressions.

“If somebody sells blockchain as their USP, you should probably look elsewhere for your desired services”

There was a collective agreement that blockchain is not a USP and companies still have to solve for genuine business problems: if somebody sells blockchain as their USP, you should probably look elsewhere for your desired services. There was also consensus that crypto-currency and blockchain are not the same things, and some felt the current negative aura surrounding Bitcoin and alt coins were hindering the wider adoption of blockchain.

While people talked blockchain and shipping, I kept relatively quiet, however, when the talk turned to advertising, I was asked why there is a much larger appetite for blockchain from the media industry in the US than there appears to be in Europe. It’s an interesting question. Part of the reason is the culture we have around deals and rebates. Blockchain will shine a bright and broad spotlight, it’s likely there are certain actors on both the buy and sell sides who are keen to avoid this light for as long as possible.

Another reason the programmatic sector is slower to adopt blockchain compared to industries such as shipping or medicine is due to the speed at which programmatic transactions happen.  Most trades between DSP and SSP clear at under a 100ms, while to record transactions with blockchain can take up to several seconds, or in some cases, minutes.

This means the concept of a distributed ledger to underpin the billions of impressions transacted via OpenRTB each day is still some way off – unless we are happy with the associated latency issues it could throw up.

“The panel and audience both agreed there is a real need for smart contracts in programmatic advertising.”

That said, the panel and audience both agreed there is a real need for smart contracts in programmatic advertising. These would reduce the opacity surrounding auction dynamics and fees. We also agreed that areas such as GDPR will make it harder for practices such as data and ID portability and felt that future blockchains from either data clouds, agencies, brands or ad/martech vendors could address some of these pending business challenges and headwinds.

The bottom line

The publishers in the room articulated a need for greater transparency from their adtech vendors, the brands expressed a real appetite to better understand how blockchain can support and underpin data portability in an age of GDPR, and the agencies wanted to know more about how smart contracts could make their deals work harder for them.

Two years ago I was firmly on the fence. Today, I think blockchain is more than just vaporware. It can help those on both the buy and sell side extract more tangible value from the existing programmatic infrastructure. Just now, I don’t know if we can do it using the existing LUMAscape or if we if we need new companies to be funded and built to support the dream of trust and transparency we as an industry so desperately chase.”

Paul Gubbins is Programmatic Lead at Unruly. Follow him on Twitter here.