Viewability: Adtech's biggest issue

If a digital ad can’t be seen, is it really an advert at all?

It sounds like a simple question, but the issue of viewability - the online advertising metric that aims to track only impressions that can be seen by users - is one of the biggest challenges that adtech faces today.

And it’s not a new problem. At the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) annual leadership meeting in 2015, Julian Zilberbrand, then EVP at media agency Zenith said, “I was talking about viewability in 2011. Now it’s 2015 and we’re not necessarily further along.” He added, “This is the year that people have to get their shit together.”

So, two years later in 2017, does the industry have its “shit together?”

How did we get here?

The arrival of programmatic advertising heralded a bright future for advertisers, promising automated ad serving in the right place, at the right time, to the right audience, with no wasted effort or spend.

It was now possible to see the number of ads that had been served and where, with impressions used as a measure of efficacy. This technology was something new, different and exciting with great potential - which, for a time, masked the real question: does it deliver results?

The voices of discontent started to emerge. “Web Display Ads Often Not Visible” proclaimed the Wall Street Journal in June 2013, stating that “an astounding 54% of online display ads shown in 'thousands' of campaigns measured by comScore between May 2012 and February of this year weren't seen by anyone, according to a study completed last month.”

In 2014, the ANA and Forrester Research published survey results that showed marketers were concerned about the transparency in pricing and value associated with programmatic advertising. And in 2016, viewability made the headlines again when it was revealed that Facebook had been over-reporting their “average duration of video viewed” metric -- and had been for the last two years.

The reason no-one in the industry spoke out, said “Ad Contrarian” Bob Hoffman in 2013, was that “everyone wants to maintain deniability. Nobody wants to know too much.” He compared the programmatic market to other industries, asking why, when “half of what is being paid for is apparently being stolen,” nobody seems to care.

“Can you imagine the outcry if it was found that gas pumps were showing 20 gallons pumped when they were only pumping 10 gallons?” he asked. “Can you imagine the riots that would occur if it was found that banks were embezzling half the money from their depositors?” He acknowledged the industry’s issues -- and asked why they were being taken as a given.

What’s in a view?

People are paying attention to the elephant in the adtech room now more than ever. But acknowledgement of the problem and finding effective solutions are two separate things entirely.

In his now-infamous talk on the state of digital advertising in January 2017, P&G’s Chief Brand Officer, Mark Pritchard said: “We spend enormous amounts of time trying to understand, analyze and explain the differences between Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Pandora, YouTube and the dozens of different viewability standards claimed to be right metric for each platform.”

Adding the kicker: “We will no longer tolerate the ridiculous complexity of different viewability standards.” His demands for ad platforms? To work with P&G, these digital outlets must support the MRC’s 50% viewability standard this year.

This talk was so important because, despite murmurs of discontent around the industry, no brand as large as P&G had so loudly and bluntly challenged the status quo. P&G spent $7.2 billion on advertising in 2015; that is a big bargaining chip to play with.

Sure enough, the industry is falling into line. Twitter has recently announced new and expanded partnerships with third-party measurement vendors, Facebook has opened itself up to third party review and has formed a client ‘Measurement Council’, and Google has announced that it will now allow the MRC to audit every single one of its third-party viewability integrations - which, for the first time, includes YouTube.

Elsewhere, other industry giants believe that viewability measures are a distraction from the real issue. Airbnb’s data science manager Alok Gupta says that we “don’t need convoluted controversial metrics systems” -- advertising should be “purely outcome-based” to track how well digital ads drive the results that businesses care about, with issues such as viewability then taking care of themselves. And, in the meantime, News Corp is looking to create a completely new definition of programmatic advertising, using metrics such as the emotional state of viewers to position it as a premium sell, rather than a space for unwanted remnant media.

A tale of two accreditors

Complicating the issue somewhat, is the sheer number of businesses offering ad measurements and metrics. With third parties, agencies and ratings councils involved, consistent statistical analysis of ad views has become a minefield.

So who is measuring what?

The two big accreditors which set standards for advertising measurement are the IAB and the MRC. Both have determined that an online ad can be counted as "in view" if 50% of its pixels are viewable for 1 second.

But is that enough?

The world’s largest media investment group, GroupM, has set itself apart by setting its own, tougher viewability standard which demands 100% in-view impressions for display ads, and that 100% of the video player is in-view for video ads, with at least half the ad viewed - with sound, too.

The increased focus on viewability is already having an impact. The IAS 2016 H2 Media Quality Report showed that video viewability rates rose from 40% in the first half of the year to 58.2% at the end of 2016, based on the MRC standard.

But none of these metrics - the MRC standard, IAB’s alternative or the newer GroupM definition - is a definitive measure of what viewability is all about. Moreover, all three are controversial.

In an interview with Digiday, a sales chief at a digital publisher, who spoke under condition of anonymity, is quoted as saying, of the GroupM standard, “especially for video, unless you’re a full-episode player, it’s hard to fulfill based on what they want to trade on.” Unilever CMO Keith Weed was quoted in 2015 as saying that all digital ads should be 100% viewable - meaning that, to him, all three standards are below par. Direct Line Group’s head of digital and social, Raluca Efford, says that “maybe a time value upwards of two seconds and an in-view percentage upwards of 75% would be getting viewability closer to the right mark. Until a high viewability rate becomes a standard campaign delivery metric, brands will be wasting a lot of money on advertising that never stood a chance to be viewed in the first place.”

Without one, single standard that’s shared across the board, it’s unlikely the issues around viewability will quickly be resolved.

Time to refocus

Programmatic advertising is by no means dead: eMarketer predict that nearly four out of five US digital display dollars will be traded programmatically this year, with spend totalling almost $33bn. The principles behind programmatic remain solid, but the focus now needs to be on tangible results that can be measured with accuracy.

The market now demands that someone takes responsibility for the changes required. Such changes could be designed with Airbnb’s Alok Gupta’s earlier comments in mind: shifting away from views as a metric, and instead focusing on outcome-based ROI rather than “controversial metrics systems”.

While viewability is an important part of engagement - it is unlikely that viewers will engage if they haven’t seen an ad at all - simple contact is not the issue: efficacy is.

The focus in programmatic advertising should be on the creative itself: understanding how a better creative output can bring better results. It’s these results that are the real challenge: defining what ROI really looks like and how it can be measured, refocusing attentions to finding solutions, rather than battling with problems.