Cleaning up the in-app supply chain: furthering transparency with sellers.json and SupplyChain object

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”

Louis Brandeis


Fifty-six percent of brand advertisers list fraud as the top concern about in-app advertising. Because of the relative newness of in-app environments and the closed off nature, it has taken longer to develop the tools and processes that we’ve had to understand desktop and mobile web advertising. Combine the walled nature of apps with the opportunities for fraud inherent in a programmatic ecosystem, and advertisers would be justified in their fears.

Programmatic innovation brought expectations of increased transparency and control, along with greater efficiency. While bad actors have taken advantage of an evolving ecosystem, sellers.json and SupplyChain object are the next steps towards fulfilling that initial promise.


How does opacity lead to fraud?

Without a good look into the supply chain from end-to-end, it’s impossible for a buyer to know that they’re getting what they set out to buy - and that the impressions and domains were legitimate. Thanks to app spoofing and unauthorized reselling, it’s entirely possible for advertisers to think they’re buying legitimate ads on legitimate publishers - and have their impressions run anywhere but.

Up until recently, it’s been very hard to know who is authorized to sell what, and to track that transaction from beginning to end. The implementation of app-ads.txt was a start, making it easy to see whether individual publishers had authorized a particular reseller or not.

But this was only a first step to providing transparent transactions. 


Sellers.json - bringing practicality to app-ads.txt

Sellers.json is a practical next step from app-ads.txt; instead of going publisher by publisher, an advertiser can go to a partner’s sellers.json file and see all of the publishers this partner is approved to directly sell or resell. Sellers.json solves for the impossible task of going to hundreds of publishers’ app-ads.txt files to see if they have all authorized an intermediary to sell for them. 

While the implementation of sellers.json is a great intermediary step, it does not completely solve for transparency issues on its own. A vendor may be an approved reseller for a publisher, but these approvals don’t reveal whether that reseller secured an impression from an authorized direct seller or directly from the publisher. “Authorized resellers” may be buying spoofed domains and fraudulent impressions from unauthorized sources, but they appear valid because their sellers.json file lists the desired publisher. They may also be blending traffic from multiple sources, both direct and resold, to obscure the true purchase path.


That’s where OpenRTB SupplyChain Object Comes in

The OpenRTB SupplyChain Object is like a passport for each impression; it has a note for each buyer and seller that can be matched back to ID numbers in app-ads.txt files, so a buyer can see every hand that touched the impression from the publisher to the buyer and then determine that all parties involved were authorized to participate in the transaction.

OpenRTB SupplyChain Object relies on the adoption of ads.txt and app-ads.txt in order to have a complete look at the supply path; if a publisher hasn’t thoroughly added all of their approved sellers to their files, it can create the illusion of gaps where there may have been legitimate transactions. With major DSPs and agencies calling for enforcement of ads.txt and app-ads.txt adoption, we expect to see greater utilization of these tools to improve supply chain transparency.


Why this all matters - optimizing the supply chain

Transparency is essential to eliminate fraud and misconduct in digital buying and selling. But fraud isn’t the only source of inefficiency in the digital advertising supply chain.

Information asymmetry results in wasted spend and underperforming ROAS. Full transparency allows advertisers to see all of the ways they are securing impressions, and gives them the information they need to make effective decisions on how best to optimize their ad buying. It shows advertisers where direct buying may be optimal, and where they may experience greater price efficiency through auctions and resold impressions.

Advertisers should ask their programmatic partners to only buy from publishers with ads.txt and app-ads.txt implemented, and must also hold their partners accountable for maximizing programmatic effectiveness and efficiency. As full adoption scales, we expect to see the entire supply chain - especially the path to in-app inventory - clean up in a meaningful way.