2021 Malvertising and Programmatic Advertising Predictions

by Kathleen Booth, on Jan 21, 2021 10:07:34 AM

2020 was an unusual—and eventful—year in the worlds of malvertising and programmatic advertising. COVID drove significant shifts in brand advertising spend, and the resulting changes in CPMs opened up opportunities for malicious actors earlier in the year. As brand advertisers resumed spending, election-related ad spend also picked up, driving CPMs back up and forcing the bad guys to get more creative in how they structure and target their malvertising campaigns.

The year also saw a significant increase in cloaking attacks, which use the dynamic creative features on platforms to hide their malicious code. These attacks are designed to evade the typical protections provided by anti-malvertising tools, but solutions like cleanAD kept pace, enabling publishers and ad platforms to stay one step ahead.

At the same time that all of this was happening, major developments such as Google's plan to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by 2022 and Apple's upcoming iOS 14 privacy changes hold the potential to upend how the advertising world functions.

In the midst of an otherwise tumultuous year, there was some good news—overall malvertising threat levels were down in 2020 from 2019.

Will the amount of malicious attacks continue to decrease, but increase in severity? What kind of impact will the pandemic continue to have in the year to come? How will broader regulatory changes and shifting privacy rules impact the advertising world moving forward?

We turned to the experts for their malvertising and programmatic advertising predictions for 2021. Read on to find out what they say we have in store for the year ahead. 

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Q4 2020 webinar


The pandemic will continue to impact open market demand and therefore put pressure on exchanges and SSPs to generate revenue.  Expect to see sizable malware attacks as some decide to take risks on "new advertisers" that are actually bad actors.

- Matt Cannon, COO at Venatus Media

Matt Cannon

Expect to see an increasing return for bad actors when employing auto-redirects as the value of inventory erodes, and bad actors get better at targeting legacy malvertising systems.

Cloaking will continue to increase in use as the attack type matures.

COVID pressures of 2020 affected anti-malvertising vendors as much as publishers. Expect a consolidation of vendor solutions in 2021 where capital is scarce and vendors will fail to serve their customers at the appropriate levels.

- Jay Crystal, Co-Founder of clean.io

Jay Crystal


Expect to see yields go down for publishers due to ongoing identity and privacy changes on the web. We know when yield and prices go down, it’s more affordable for attackers to buy, so expect to be seeing more and more net attacks due to price decreases.

- Seth Demsey, Co-Founder of clean.io


Seth Demsey quote

In 2020, online behaviors accelerated 5-10 years, creating millions more online customers and more companies that have renewed focus on digital channels, creating more opportunities for issues like malvertising, but also more of a reason to fight against it.

Creating a cleaner, higher-quality marketplace will be in everyone's best interest. Ongoing investigations into Facebook and Google, and increased privacy regulations will give publishers, brands and consumers a voice against issues like malvertising, among others.

Publishers will be more discerning against low quality demand, and tech companies will create more effective strategies for delivering quality.

- Jayson Dubin, CEO & President at Playwire

Jayson Dubin quote

2021 will be a key year in shaping the future of identity on the Web. The big platforms have co-opted the privacy-by-design movement to push a vision for the Web where the browsers are the guardians of user identity and its various marketing applications (targeting, attribution, frequency capping, etc.).

While this framework is probably better from the standpoint of user privacy, the companies that will benefit the most are the walled gardens and big Internet platforms. In other words, the dominance of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon would be probably be strengthened by the proposed changes, at the expense of independent publishers and the open Web at large.

At the same time, regulators are starting to realize that these companies are already too powerful and are finally taking action to mitigate this.

- Marty Kratky-Katz, CEO at Blockthrough

Marty Krathy quote

Expect changes to the programmatic landscape as brands shift from viewing it as just a way to monetize at high fill rates to a linear path to direct programmatic sales.

Brand and agency budgets will shift to leveraging their own 1st party data as a larger source of revenue.

This shift will be driven by the ongoing slow death of the 3rd party cookie, the 2020 industry impact caused by the COVID pandemic, and the volatile political/social justice climate as having clear insight and transparency into supply path and ad adjacency becomes increasingly important.

- Richard Marques, CEO at Revcontent


Richard Marques quote

Redirect attacks will continue but begin to take a back seat to newer methods like cloaking and to the use of landing pages looking to spread false information.

Ecommerce scams will increase with easy access to set up shopping sites through tools like Shopify, Magento, etc. Copying the look and feel of existing sites will allow bad actors to bait and switch users.

Platforms and publishers will begin to expand their definition of malvertising beyond just the ad render to include the landing page and ad creative itself.

- Jason Dobrzykowski, Director, Platform and Channel Partnerships at clean.io

Jason's Quote

Open Auction global display buying will drop by at least 20%, shifting to Private Marketplaces and other channels.

As better practices for Identity Attribution & Measurement start to drive better programmatic direct relationships and create fewer incentives for malvertising and fraudulent behavior.

- Matt Prohaska, CEO & Principal at Prohaska Consulting

Matt Prohaska quote

Expect malvertising to decline, but become more sophisticated and severe when it does strike.

Essentially, attacks will happen less frequently, but they will be more severe. This is mainly due to the increases in media cost and complexity to reaching audiences.

Unsophisticated malware that generates a lot of value with little effort will decline, and more complex value models and methods will take its place.

- Bob Regular, CEO at Infolinks

Bob Regular quote

With everyone still at home in 2021 and owning more devices than ever, it means more opportunities for criminals to exploit.

Bad guys always continue to innovate to intentionally harm people and businesses through ads. Even in the cleanest of environments, trouble can always arise without protection.

Bad actors will increase sophistication levels and tactics to exploit this reality. Be smart and get ahead of threats as much as you can.

- Erik Requidan, CEO at Media Tradecraft


Erik Requidan Quote'

Expect to see a larger look into the economics and criminal aspect of malvertising.

When fraud initially came into the industry the more nefarious aspects of it were not really focused upon, so the government didn't really invest in stopping it. Just recently they have begun looking at malvertising as a serious cyber risk.

This year the will start looking more deeply into attacks to try and find state-led actors, identity theft, and potential money laundering as underlying reasons for attacks.

- Jeff Matthies, Engineering Lead at clean.io

jeff matthies quote

DFA related targeting and attribution challenges will lead to higher fill and lower rates.

Advertisers still need to sell and promote products and drive mobile UA. This will require a wider net to be cast to find their target audience and a lower CPM in an attempt to hit their target ROAS.

Lower CPM also means more opportunity for bad actors to infiltrate publisher inventory. Stay vigilant on your yield (offense) and user experience (defense) equally as this shakes out.

- Matt Sherman, Owner at Cove Media

Matt Sherman quote

Expect to see new forms of mobile app specific threats in the ecosystem that will become more pervasive as app becomes an increasingly targeted area for malvertising.

- Marshall Moritz, Director of Business Intelligence & Data Analytics at clean.io

Marshall's quote

Dozens of large marketers will launch detailed audits of their ad spend in light of Uber sharing that they wasted $100M of their ad spend.

Ad spend will flow to the publishers that are doing the work of ensuring their supply paths, the ad tech partners who work only directly with buyers and sellers will benefit and the reseller market will come under pressure. As a result, fraud will continue its decline and buyers and sellers will benefit.

The ecosystem will hit a new level of maturity, with lots of public companies, more efficient transactions and better transparency and tools to root out bad actors. Fraud will start to look like it does in the credit card space - random outbreaks rather than systemic large scale issues.

- David Simon,  Chief Revenue Officer at Fyber

David Simon quote

Cloaking and heavy ads will continue to increase in use, and their newfound prevalence in the U.S. will make them even more of a concern.

This year will likely also see a resurgence in invalid traffic (IVT) despite the relatively quiet year it had last year.

There will also be a lot of learning around new attack types launched using 5G, as bad actors find new ways to exploit new technologies.

- Matt Peck, Director, Client Partnerships & Operations at clean.io

Matt Peck Quote


Read the full Q4 2020 & Year in Review Smart Report below!

Q4 2020 smart report


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