Last Touch Attribution is Killing Display Advertising

If you read industry reports or are involved in programmatic media buys, which should encompass all of you, then you are aware of the manifold issues plaguing display advertising at present. It is disheartening to face an uphill battle against a few bad apples that are spoiling the entire bushel. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where everything went wrong, but I would like to accuse an overlooked culprit of providing the motivation for much of what we collectively hate about the industry today: last touch attribution.

Last touch attribution is not just a counter-productive attribution methodology, it incentivizes bad behavior and de-incentivizes good behavior across the industry.

Just so we’re all on the same page, “last touch attribution” decrees that the most recent piece of advertising served to a purchaser be given 100% of the credit for a subsequent transaction. It is the equivalent of declaring that the winner of a basketball game is the team that scored last, regardless of the final score. If I saw 15 ads on my desktop and then happened to have one ad load out of view on a mobile site I visited right before I bought the product on my bus ride home from work, then the mobile ad campaign would get credit for that purchase. At first blush it seems harmless outside of marketing budget allocation decisions, but upon inspection you realize that detrimental industry practices have sprung up to exploit it.

In order to win the last touch attribution game, all you need to do is record having served an ad to a cookie or deviceId that can be tied to a purchase. It does not need to be seen. It just needs to be cheap. To win at that game, nothing we care about as marketers matters:


The ad does not need to be visible to record an impression so there is no incentive to incur the cost of a higher CPM for higher quality inventory. This reality has business implications. If you are in an all-too-common DSP bake-off, for example, sacrificing reach for quality is not going to win you the contract.


The priority isn’t for an ad to actually have an impact on the consumer, it just needs to be served somewhere on a page the consumer is visiting. Sometimes those cheap impressions will be bots, but it’s just not worth the effort of rooting out non-human traffic from a campaign when you run the risk of missing out on critical low cost “impressions.”


The creative itself is effectively irrelevant. I don’t just mean the design or message or CTA. All the assets don’t even have to load for an impression to be recorded so it doesn’t even have to be “L.E.A.N.” Nothing is more confounding than an advertiser paying rich media ad serving CPM on a campaign being measured by last touch attribution.


In reality, no purchase is exclusively attributable to a single advertising channel. Every channel, from TV to print to search to display and beyond, needs to work together to move a consumer through the funnel to purchase. Last touch attribution turns digital channels into adversaries and incentives each one to optimize separately for cherry picking rather than meaningfully contributing to the consumer journey.

By eliminating last touch attribution, you completely re-orient display advertising incentives around what matters: quality.

  • Your digital media planners will work together to coordinate impact across channels.
  • Your trading desk will prioritize viewability, high impact placements, and human traffic over reach.
  • Your creative team will create ads that capitalize on every hard-earned moment of consumer attention.

Last touch attribution isn’t the only thing killing digital advertising, but until we change how the game is scored we’re just going to keep getting played.