NEW YORK As brands pump more dollars into Web video, complaints are being filed against video ad networks over dubious practices.
Industry observers said that some networks deceptively pump up their ad impression numbers by running video units that start automatically when users visit a site -- sometimes below the fold -- making it unlikely that viewers would actually see the ads.
For example, at deadline last week, video ads for brands like Snickers, Sprite, BMW and Mass Mutual were running at the very bottom of Puff.com and Qj.net. Those placements, served by the video ad network Tremor Media, were most likely not what these brands had in mind.
To some, that's not just bad business. "It's fake pre-roll," said Tod Sacerdoti, CEO of ad network BrightRoll.
Last Thursday, ABC was also running auto-start trailers for its new show FlashForward on numerous long-tail sites, both above and below the fold.
Shari Caputo, svp, sales and marketing at Puff.com, said Tremor only just last week started asking partners to halt this practice. She emphasized that the majority of Puff.com's video advertising is served prior to its own video content, which is user-requested and appears above the fold.
Yet Shane Steele, Tremor's vp, marketing, countered it has never allowed below-the-fold ads, adding that some partners don't always comply.
Tremor's network, like many video ad nets, offers a variety of placements. Some are adjacent to actual content while many others are placed within display ads ("in-banner" video). "It's a very nuanced space, which makes it complicated," said Steele. Plus, Tremor's network features thousands of sites. And third-party video ad serving is not yet universal.
Those factors don't make it easy for buyers, who often must monitor such buys manually or employ a third-party tracking vendor. "Those are both expensive options," said Adam Kasper, svp, director of digital media at MPG/Media Contacts. He doesn't buy the argument that networks can't always control their partners. "That is the ad network's responsibility," Kasper said.
Still, other digital execs said some buyers are either uninformed or negligent when it comes to video network buys. "There is a gap between what an advertiser thinks they are buying and what they are buying," said Sacerdoti.
"Some look the other way," said Darryl LaRue, evp, operations and business development at BBE.
Why? The recession has put pressure on ad budgets, and buyers are faced with a choice between pre-roll video that can carry a $50 CPM, or networks dangling inventory at CPMs under $10. "If a CPM seems too good to be true, it probably is," said Danny Fishman, head of Digital Broadcasting Group.
That price disparity also highlights an ongoing industry question: Is all Web video inventory of equal value? Some believe the limited amount of quality pre-roll inventory necessitates other forms of Web video advertising. "I don't have an issue with in-banner video as long as it is done right," said Fishman. "The Web is still 90 percent text based, so there has to be a way to leverage that [for video]."
But others see a major difference. Ad network YuMe, said vp of marketing Molly Gallatin, eschews in-banner video: "To me, it's the difference between video billboard ads you pass on the highway and ads that I see when watching TV in the living room."
Several of the top digital media industry groups are starting to weigh in. Though Nielsen Online does not yet track online video networks, comScore is closely watching this issue, according to Tania Yuki, director, product management. But the company is hesitant to implement any premature standards, such as labeling networks that employ in-banner video differently than those that sell mostly pre-roll inventory. "We don't want to cut down an industry that is just starting to grow," she said.
Meanwhile, the Interactive Advertising Bureau is in the middle of developing guidelines on auto stream ads specifically. Said Jeremy Fain, vp of industry services at the IAB in a statement: "While there are legitimate reasons to begin a video upon page load, the IAB does not encourage auto play of video below the fold on a page that is not designed to focus on that video content."
The IAB Digital Video Committee is currently working on updating the Digital Video Measurement Guidelines to include more transparency on auto-play methodologies for digital video ads. It is also developing guidelines for appropriate audience measurement of auto-play streams.
Nielsen Business Media