Welcome back to BRANDED, the newsletter uncovering how adtech companies fund hate and disinformation.
Here’s what’s new with us:
On the outside, Pubmatic looks like it’s flying high. The California-based ad exchange had a successful IPO in December 2020. They reported record earnings of $75M last quarter. And last week, they announced that GroupM, one of the world’s largest media buying agencies, which spends $50B a year, had chosen to partner with them “to support the supply chain of the future.”
With this wealth of resources and responsibility on its shoulders, you probably wouldn’t think that Pubmatic’s brand safety process comes down to just one guy, hunched over a desk, using half-assed Google searches to decide what websites are fake news. But we’ve seen evidence that this is how things really seem to work at Pubmatic.
That’s not a great place to start. But what makes this alarming and urgent is that the executive responsible for brand safety at Pubmatic appears to subscribe to the extremist views and conspiracy theories he’s responsible for filtering out of the supply chain.
In other words, we believe he’s redpilled — and that one man’s clouded judgment at a zero-transparency company has created a serious brand safety risk for any advertiser that works with Pubmatic.
In today’s BRANDED, we’re exploring how Pubmatic has already breached its brand safety agreements with advertisers — and how putting the wrong person in charge is also putting their clients’ cash straight into the hands of disinformation outlets.
In the ad world, Pubmatic is known as a “supply-side platform.” This means that they collect websites, apps and streaming TV — or the “supply” — that advertisers want to place their ads on. When a website is accepted into Pubmatic’s inventory, they gain access to millions of advertising dollars.
As Pubmatic’s Senior Director of Marketplace Quality since 2018, Eric Bozinny’s responsibility is to ensure that the inventory they provide advertisers is good quality, and that their clients are not paying to have their ads seen by robots. Bozinny and his team are responsible for the following:
That last one requires critical thinking skills and the ability to exercise judgment on behalf of the Fortune 500 brands that you represent. But we haven’t seen that yet from Pubmatic. What we have seen is Bozinny, who uses his personal Twitter account both personally and professionally, promoting content that rails against vaccines, Leftists, and school mask mandates.
Bozinny’s retweets and likes include narratives that promote Ivermectin as an alternative to the vaccine, “freedom fighters” fighting for the right not to wear masks indoors and even Jack Posobiec, a white nationalist & the troll behind Pizzagate. He is down the rabbit hole.
We have also seen Pubmatic continue partnerships with Epoch Times, The Post Millennial and Topple — all of which violate the company’s Supply Policy and that the advertising industry universally agrees are brand unsafe.
Together, this suggests that Bozinny’s personal views may be bleeding into his ability to enforce the company’s brand safety agreements — and there appears to be no accountability at PubMatic to protect their clients from it.
In a comment to BRANDED, a Pubmatic rep said: "We support our employees and their diversity of ideas and philosophies while also providing our customers with brand-safe and measurable inventory across our platform."
Uhh OK, sure. Here are three brand unsafe entities we’ve found monetizing through Pubmatic:
In May 2020, we reached out to Bozinny on Twitter to flag Epoch Times, providing detailed reporting from three different news reports that showed a pattern of the outlet promoting anti-vaxx propaganda, QAnon conspiracies, and the “Wuhan Virus” conspiracy theory.
Bozinny responded that his process for evaluating disinformation outlets is to consult various free research tools available online. In his research, he had concluded that Epoch Times has a “right bias.”
When these issues arise with sites, I typically reference a couple of sites to check on factual reporting. http://Epochtimes.com shows as 'mixed' (as does CNN and Fox News), in the http://mediabiasfactcheck.com database, and http://allsides.com writes "An independent review by an AllSides Staffer in April 2020 found that The Epoch Times maintains a right bias, and that overall, The Epoch Times reporting is factual.". That said, if you have examples that show a pattern of false reporting, I'll certainly review. In both cases, these third party sites have clearly identified epoch times as right leaning with a strong anti CCP bias.
While it appears Bozinny understands what bias is, he doesn’t seem to have a process for evaluating patterns of false information — a separate concept. It does not appear that he conducted further research, consulted experts or read the reporting we provided him.
In a comment to BRANDED, Pubmatic disputes their relationship with Epoch Times: “Based on NewsGuard’s rating of theepochtimes.com, PubMatic does not work with that site.”
However, Pubmatic continues to actively list Epoch Times (Seller ID 156822) as approved inventory in its sellers.json file.
Pubmatic has stuck with The Post Millennial through it all. Under the guise of journalism, The Post Millennial’s Editor-at-Large Andy Ngo has promoted hate organizations Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, disseminated harmful information about transgender people, incited physical violence and doxxing against a wheelchair bound activist, violated copyright law by sharing videos without permission, and falsely tied the Waukesha killings to Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, he allegedly inspired a man named Ben Smith to murder an unarmed 60-year old woman.
Over the past few months, The Post Millennial has been dropped by nearly a dozen ad exchanges including Kargo, OpenX, Teads, TripleLift, OpenWeb, Media.Net and Sharethrough.
Pubmatic is not one of them. Why?
In a comment to BRANDED, PubMatic says the company partners with The Post Millennial because it has received a Green rating (“generally trustworthy”) from Newsguard.
Excuse us, but how did a firearm-friendly ad network make it into Pubmatic’s inventory? Did anyone at Pubmatic happen to check out Topple’s website before it was approved? Did anyone happen to see that Topple’s Founder & CEO has gone to jail twice for attempted murder…using firearms?
But there’s more. Topple was listed as a “Publisher” in Pubmatic’s sellers.json file, the directory that advertisers use to cross-check their ad buys. As we’ve reported before, ad networks are not publishers. They are middlemen and must be listed as an “Intermediary” or “Reseller.” When ad exchanges mislabel entries, it tricks their clients into believing they’re buying direct inventory — when they’re actually paying a middleman. (Brands pay extra $$ to avoid middlemen, so they're not getting what they paid for.)
The difference between a "Publisher" and an "Intermediary" is clear as day. We have literally included the definition in a previous BRANDED, with pictures and everything.
But Bozinny, who is a member of IAB's Programmatic Supply Chain Working Group, which is tasked with being stewards of the ads.txt protocol, still argues that there’s room for "interpretation":
The definition of direct vs. reseller seems often up to interpretation. For researchers and twitter activists, who often reference ads.txt entries as proof positive of deception, conclusions are often muddied by ongoing issues with ads.txt that were not foreseen when the spec was created. Outdated entries, reseller “spray and pray” entry inclusions, and definitions of “direct” inventory that don’t satisfy all parties are examples of pitfalls in relying only on ads.txt files to validate supply paths.
Do words mean anything anymore?
Pubmatic removed Topple (Seller ID 160810) from its sellers.json file after we called attention to it last week. In a comment to BRANDED, PubMatic disputes our claim, saying that the company has “has never worked with Topple.”
Is it fair to put the spotlight on one person? No.
That’s why we’re calling attention to the fact that Pubmatic's idea of brand safety, one of the biggest ad exchanges in the world, appears to be buying a Newsguard subscription for someone who doesn't understand the concepts outlined in their own Supply Policy, and calling it a day. If the Senior Director of Marketplace Quality isn't advocating for brand safety, who is?
If we were a Pubmatic client, these are the questions we would be asking them today:
Thank you for reading,
Claire and Nandini