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Q&A With FreeWheel COO Carl Kalapesi on Connected TV/OTT Ad Quality

Aug 27, 2020 6:30:00 AM

Pixalate recently released its inaugural Connected TV Seller Trust Index (CSTI) to benchmark the overall quality of programmatic sellers in the OTT/CTV landscape across Roku, Amazon, and Samsung platforms.

In our Q1 2020 CTV Seller Trust Index, Comcast's FreeWheel ranked particularly well across the board:

  • Amazon platform: 1st
  • Roku platform: 2nd
  • Samsung platform: 3rd

Pixalate spoke with FreeWheel COO Carl Kalapesi to discuss FreeWheel's efforts for maintaining a quality programmatic OTT/CTV marketplace.

Pixalate: What OTT/CTV services does FreeWheel provide for programmatic advertisers? 

Kalapesi: FreeWheel powers the TV and premium video ecosystem. We provide the technology, data enablement, and convergent marketplaces to ensure buyers and sellers can transact seamlessly across all screens, across all data types, and all sales channels.

We know how important it is for our publishers to monetize their professionally produced content and how valuable it is for advertisers to reach their audiences within that premium content. We’ve seen enormous growth from OTT/CTV over the past few years, and the current global pandemic has truly accelerated many of the trends that were already underway; in fact, from March to April, we saw over 50% growth in OTT/CTV viewing, and Pixalate saw a 40% increase in ad spend.

Our technology enables our premium supply side client base to holistically manage – from pitch to pay – their OTT/CTV inventory right alongside all other inventory; and on the buy side, we help advertisers easily buy targeted, premium TV at scale, and we are proud to say that we have been named the industry’s most trusted source for programmatic OTT/CTV (Pixalate’s CSTI, Q1 2020). We have a deep commitment to premium inventory, and we’ve had a long and dedicated focus on maintaining high standards and building trust with both buyers and sellers. 

Pixalate: From FreeWheel’s perspective, how does the battle against ad fraud differ in OTT/CTV compared to other environments, such as mobile in-app? 

Kalapesi: OTT/CTV is a premium environment, where advertisers can reach their audience with the targeting of digital in a high-value TV-like experience. As a result, many impressions come from premium players on recognized platforms, which makes it a comparably safe environment. But OTT/CTV is still a fairly new channel, which means there are fewer standards in place and it can be more complex to find patterns in ad fraud issues; so it’s critical to know where your inventory is coming from.

This is a never-ending battle and FreeWheel is leading the way with other industry players to ensure we keep OTT/CTV clean and stay ahead of fraudsters. We work with the most premium OTT/CTV programmers who have their own internal controls in place which, when coupled with our stringent vetting and monitoring, combine to ensure we are the most trustworthy premium marketplace for OTT/CTV inventory. This has resulted in FreeWheel being one of the first two industry actors accredited by the MRC for OTT video impressions.

Pixalate: How does FreeWheel protect its marketplace from invalid traffic (IVT)?

Kalapesi: This is a major priority for us. We employ an extensive onboarding process combined with ongoing monitoring to look for invalid traffic from many angles. For example, when we onboard new partners, we look at the quality of their content and do a full technical tracing so that we can screen out content and partners that are more likely to have problems with ad fraud.

We work closely with other industry leaders, including IVT measurement and verification providers, to root out potential fraud problems. And we continue to grow in this area: we recently announced that we have expanded our partnership with White Ops to include pre-bid bot protection capabilities, ensuring that our clients can continue to detect, report on and eliminate fraud in their supply chain immediately.

Pixalate: How is FreeWheel’s approach to traffic quality evaluation unique?

At FreeWheel, we pride ourselves on our willingness to say “no” when the wrong opportunities come up. We constantly monitor inventory using established industry frameworks for non-brand suitable categories and vetting new inventory supplies by reviewing the actual content.

If content doesn’t fit our definition of “premium,” or involves content like hate speech or pirated content that we wouldn’t consider brand-safe for advertisers, we will reject it. It’s important to us that we prioritize the long-term quality of our product over immediate revenue, because we know that if advertisers can’t trust our inventory, they can’t trust us.

Pixalate: FreeWheel ranked particularly high in the 'SSAI Transparency' category. What are some best practices for OTT/CTV buyers and sellers when using SSAI?

Kalapesi: We believe deeply in the value of premium inventory at FreeWheel. This is particularly true with OTT and CTV.  Given how fast the OTT/CTV landscape and technologies are changing, working with high-quality partners is more important than ever. FreeWheel has always focused on working with premium partners, and we encourage buyers and sellers in the OTT/CTV space to focus on supplying and buying high-quality inventory.

We have an active partner management team that works with different SSAI vendors to make sure that they are properly integrated into our ecosystem. We’re also actively working with industry bodies like the IAB and MRC to make sure that SSAI traffic is transparent, accurate, and measurable across the entire ecosystem.

Pixalate: From where you sit in the ecosystem, how has ad fraud evolved in OTT/CTV over the last 12-24 months? How often does the topic come up in conversations now compared to a year ago?

Kalapesi: Over just the past year or two, OTT/CTV has developed into a mature channel that consumers are viewing more like linear television. Not surprisingly, as consumers lean more into their OTT/CTV devices, the ad dollars continue to flow there, with eMarketer projecting CTV ad spend to surpass $10 billion in 2021. Ad fraud tends to follow the money, so as viewers and ad dollars have moved into CTV, so have bad actors. 2019 saw an increase in buyers and sellers calling for tighter standards when it comes to measuring and identifying ad fraud on CTV apps, so the call for transparency is huge.

We set ourselves apart because a large portion of our inventory comes from premium players who take protecting their brands seriously, have their own internal controls, and encourage authentication and verification with their users, which reassures advertisers.

Pixalate: What are common misperceptions regarding ad fraud in the context of OTT/CTV?

Kalapesi: Going back just a few years, many in the industry would have said there is no ad fraud in OTT/CTV, but fraud follows the money, and as OTT/CTV grows, so do the risks. With more and more OTT content providers being introduced every month, it’s critical to actively know whom you are partnering with and focus on inventory that is safe.

There really is no nuance when it comes to defining “premium.” Truly premium OTT/CTV is not User-Generated Content; we’re talking about high-quality, safe programming that’s just like TV. By focusing on premium inventory, as we do at FreeWheel, you are already a step ahead in the fight against ad fraud.

Pixalate: What do advertisers need to know about traffic quality in OTT/CTV? What areas require the most attention and education?

Pixalate: When evaluating traffic quality in OTT/CTV, advertisers should pay attention to what processes other partners are using to be transparent, and also to vet their own supply of users/devices. Each part of the ecosystem has to be involved and committed to keep traffic quality premium.

Advertisers should know what they are buying and understand that premium inventory is incredibly important in OTT/CTV. Not only is premium content more valuable to advertisers, but those companies are also more likely to invest in their own quality control measures.

When working with a partner, ensure they have a thorough onboarding process for new partners, vetting both the content itself and the technical capabilities, combined with ongoing monitoring once something is onboarded.  You have to constantly monitor it to be sure it remains premium.

Pixalate: What is the future of programmatic advertising on OTT/CTV? What is FreeWheel's roadmap moving forward?

Kalapesi: At FreeWheel, we are working to transform the TV and premium video industry. Earlier this year, we released the next generation of our unified decisioning capability, enabling buyers and sellers to seamlessly transact across both direct sold and programmatic advertising. We have also taken steps to expand partnerships that will help deepen trust in premium video inventory across the globe.

As the year goes on, we will be hyper-focused on expanding the ways advertisers can buy and execute OTT/CTV campaigns while bringing new demand channels to our publisher partners. We have invested in our own controls – internally and through partnerships – to increase trust in our marketplace while we roll out new tools to help buyers and sellers connect.

And we’ll continue to build new technology that allows publishers to make their inventory available in programmatic marketplaces using safe, transparent protocols that help them to increase yield. We know that, increasingly, buyers are seeing CTV as a core component of their media plans – and we want to make sure they are getting what they pay for.

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