Trouble Brews Over the Viewability of Digital Ads

Publishers wary of increased scrutiny by brands

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The Media Rating Council (MRC) recently lifted its 18-month-old advisory against selling digital ads based on whether they are measurably viewed by consumers. It’s a move that will likely reshape the $50 billion ad marketplace and pit publishers against brands, while putting in motion a surge in the number of online promotions sold on viewability metrics—pricing that functions on how frequently ads are seen by viewers. The metrics, or “currency” in industry vernacular, are often dictated by MRC-approved vendors, which include comScore, Moat, Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify.


Now, one company will be combining all four of those MRC-accredited vendors into one product. Ad network Undertone today is introducing a new platform to help clients such as Walgreens and DigitasLBi optimize their ad buys. While plenty of factors go into brands’ budgetary decisions, viewability stats could bolster digital spends. “The more we know about the impact of our efforts, the easier it is to confidently make decisions,” said Adam Kmiec, senior director of social media and content, Walgreens.

Industry players hope that a widely-used digital ad currency will validate online gross-point ratings as well as cement interactive marketing’s place in sales attribution models. But many publishers—already feeling the weight of having to generate enough revenue to support original content—are not thrilled with the scrutiny that will come as a result of viewable impression standards. It stands to devalue their inventory, siphoning serious cash.

Then there’s the problem of inconsistency. Brian Fitzgerald, CEO, Evolve Media, said he has tested a number of viewability vendors only to find major fluctuations. Ads on his company’s core digital lifestyle properties score as high as 68 percent with one vendor and as low as 35 percent with another. Fitzgerald suggested that agencies and brands are getting ahead of themselves.

“The technology being used to solve this problem is not ready for prime time,” he argued. “What’s more concerning is that agencies are increasingly saying they want to bill off of viewability. The stakes in the game then get that much higher. If I give them perfect, premium inventory right out of the gate, the best I can hope for is getting paid for 68 percent of it. It’s unfair, and it’s untenable.”

However, Jon Slade, Financial Times’ director of digital advertising, had stern advice for Fitzgerald. “Don’t put your head in the sand,” he said. “Get out and get this going. Advertisers and brands are going to start demanding it.”

Skeptics will point out that the viewability concept has moved far too slowly for years because of a fragmented vendor scene. So why should anyone believe things are about to change? “Because what we’ve [recently] seen [in] tracking viewability is a noticeable difference in performance,” explained Holly Heller, associate media director at agency Moxie. “From a branding standpoint, it’s obviously important that consumers see the ad itself.”

The rise of viewability is not lost on large brands. At the recent big-data-focused I-Com conference in Spain, Kellogg’s insights director Amaya Garbayo said the packaged-goods giant had made major inroads on digital ads’ viewability in a regional test. “It has made such a huge difference in our campaigns,” she said. “We cannot wait to roll it out across the globe.”

But on the whole, it’s going to take time to iron out kinks, acknowledged Sherrill Mane, svp of research at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, who implored the industry to take the long view. “I believe this year it will definitely take,” she predicted. “It will leap forward, and it will become currency.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.
Publish date: April 27, 2014 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT