Is Ads.txt the future of safe programmatic advertising?

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Any marketplace will inevitably entice bad people to do bad things in an attempt to cheat the system and make a quick buck.  Let’s face it— digital advertising certainly is no exception unless you’re working with a trusted company with trusted partners.  As the space has fallen victim to various forms of foul-play in recent years, issues like bot traffic, opaque margins/fees, counterfeit inventory, and unauthorized resale now cannibalize just about every link in the daisy chain between Brand and Publisher.  Virtually every top player employs various solutions designed to combat these types of shady activities and, most recently, we’ve seen something called “ads.txt” coming to the forefront.


ads.txt: is basically a means for regulating unauthorized re-sale created by IAB’s Tech Lab.


To maximize yield, publishers tend to employ multiple different SSPs solutions simultaneously.  As such, there is a finite list of authorized supply-side affiliates/technologies associated with each publisher.  Have a look at this actual ads.txt file from The New York Times: Only the names and seat IDs listed in that plain txt file are controlled [or have been granted the right to be controlled] by the legitimate party offering this inventory up in the exchanges— whichever team at The New York Times corporate office it is that heads up the publications programmatic outfit.

What does it mean for buyers? What it means is that any bid requests coming from sources other than those on that list are illegitimate, i.e. “counterfeit” inventory.  They bear no connection to any actual advertising inventory found on  Imagine buying a pair of Nike Air Jordan’s shoes from a street vendor, only to find out that they are counterfeit knock-offs.  Nike receives zero profit for the sale of this counterfeit product, and the unfortunate buyer has paid an expensive rate for a piece of fake merchandise.  The scenario I’ve described is very similar to the unauthorized resale phenomenon that has been plaguing AdTech of late.

Such a high volume of counterfeit inventory is floating around that the going rates for valid traffic are being skewed.  As one can imagine, ultimately this problem is significantly hurting the publishers bottom line.   At the same time, demand that is unknowingly purchasing this counterfeit inventory is getting ripped off, in that agencies are not even reaching the audiences that they bid top-dollar to try and access.

  1. A) market rates are skewed/unnatural
  2. B) agency dollars not only wasted, but also directly funding the issue

“Counterfeit inventory comes in many forms, but it typically results in real media spend not reaching legitimate and deserving publishers. Ads.txt helps publishers reclaim control of their media, brand, and rate card. This means more of an advertiser’s spend can get to the domain owner through their approved sales channels, and not be wasted on counterfeit inventory.”


While oftentimes it’s not that case when facing problems in the space, here we need to put the blame on the Supply side this time.  Resources should be invested in pinpointing the source of this unauthorized resale of counterfeit inventory, and holding responsible the parties accountable.  To penalize Demand-side buyers for not checking the ads.txt file of every single domain they get passed bid-request from is a bit ridiculous but, as it stands today, completely necessary.

Another benefit of running campaigns across only Ads.txt approved publishers is you can create a very transparent and relevant “whitelist” of where you want to run.   Here at Motus, several campaigns have requested Ads.txt “whitelists” where we’ll craft a safe and relevant list of Ads.txt sites that match the advertisers goals.     Once this list is implemented, the brand can comfortably know that there won’t be any questionable sites integrated into the  campaign.  This is a sigh of relief in many cases where established brands don’t want to be associated with “questionable” sites that may have extreme views and caught in the crossfires of watchdog companies like Sleeping Giants.

Is Ads.txt perfect?  No, it’s not just yet, but it’s definitely a move in the right direction.   Ads.txt does not guarantee “fraud-free” traffic.   You basically need to trust that the publisher or authorized seller or reseller does not inflate traffic by mixing in legitimate traffic with traffic from bot networks.  Bottom line, it’s good to mix in or exclusively use whitelists on branding campaigns.  That said, your users most likely be visiting non-ads.txt sites where you could successfully influence them with advertising, retarget them and build up valuable cookie pools, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.

If you would like to learn more about ads.txt and white label strategies that Motus is implementing with clients like the ANA please reach out to [email protected]


Written in collaboration with John J. Taormina and Arkady Fridman.


John J. Toarmina  is a digital marketing expert with over 3 years experience with DSP’s, Publishers and Programmatic video platforms.

Arkady Fridman is the founder of Motus Media and heading strategic media buying.

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