Agency and Brand Leaders Weigh in on Digital’s Mounting Ad Viewability Issues

2015 promises a huge battle on this front

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Ad viewability is perhaps the hottest digital advertising topic heading into the new year, thanks to a little back-and-forth between the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the 4A's. So why not ask brand and agency leaders where they stand on the issue?

But first, here's a recap: On Dec. 16, the IAB suggested that online ads meet a 70 percent viewability threshold against the Media Ratings Council's eight-month-old display ads standard, which calls for 50 percent of pixels per promo be viewed for at least one second. For a video ad, per the MRC, half of an online spot needs to be on the consumer's screen for at least two seconds. So for display or video, if the measurable impressions/views don't achieve the MRC's standard at a 70 percent threshold, make-goods are in order, the IAB stated. In reaction, the 4A's reportedly advised its members to not endorse guidelines that the IAB issued. Those developments came on the heels of Google's early December report, which found that 56 percent of display ad impressions never appear to online viewers.

While industry players are jockeying for the best position to achieve the most agreeable ad prices for their respective interests, one brand marketer sounded surprised that the IAB's 70 percent threshold was set that high.

"Honestly, it's better than what we're seeing and what I expected [the IAB] come in with," said Kevin Scholl, digital marketing director at Red Roof Inn. "For the last couple years, the thing I've said most about buying display is that it's like throwing money into a dark room and hoping that somebody sees you."

Of course, brands don't want to pay for ads that don't even have a chance to leave an impression. But digital promos have inherent viewability barriers that traditional advertising—which isn't seen by 100 percent of the audiences purchased, either—doesn't face. Digital's obstacles include how consumers scroll pages, how they intermittently look at websites in different windows on a desktop and slow Internet connections. With that in mind, digital agencies are largely standing firm with the IAB, stating that 100 percent viewability even on premium sites is essentially impossible.

"It is not dissimilar to TV," said Scott Symonds, director of media at AKQA. "In TV, you are charged for all impressions where there is an opportunity to view, but people commonly leave the room or are otherwise distracted during a commercial pod. Most TV advertisers discount the number of ad impressions they buy by this distraction rate.

"I think we need to do something similar for online," Symonds added. "We need to continue to fight to eliminate deliberate exploitation of non-viewable ad impressions and attribution hijacking, but we also have to realize that not every impression will be viewable. We might settle on a rate of 70 to 80 percent viewability and do our planning on real impressions/reach/frequency using those adjusted numbers."

Adam Shlachter, chief investment officer at DigitasLBi, largely agreed, adding that all media should be measured against well-understood standards. "That should include fraud detection, brand safety and whether or not an ad was delivered in or out of view," he said. 

Indeed, ad buyers and sellers aren't completely on different pages—they want to collectively fix the viewability problem. But new research from Integral Ad Science shows just how divided the community is when it comes to what constitutes "viewability." Just 22 percent of buyers said the MRC's standards were high enough, while 61 percent of sellers believed the MRC's mandate was appropriate.

"I believe that rational leaders on both sides can find the right combination of buying requirements, budgets, pricing, as well as premium supply to make the new viewable world work," said Jonah Goodhart, CEO of measurement firm Moat, an accedited MRC vendor. "Ultimately, it may be a move toward metrics beyond viewability, toward attention, where clear winners are discovered on both sides."

Jared Belsky, President of 360i, added, "Our goal going into 2015 should continue to be to push the limits and focus on high quality, verifiable and measurable media for clients in order to eliminate risk and make strides toward that industry mission."

That would suit Red Roof Inn's Scholl—a 360i client. But he doesn't think the heated discussion will disappear early in '15.

"It's going to keep going, and it should keep going," Scholl said. "What the last couple of months of ongoing conversation has done for us, in terms of our ad buys, is make us smarter buyers of publishers. We've taken a step back and looked at where we are serving our [ads]. If we were buying in spaces with lame guarantees, we had to question continue buying there—or evolve how we were buying. And that's why the conversation should keep going."

Scholl further noted that in late 2014 his brand continued on the same investment curve as earlier in the year, but paid more attention to data that could help ads that were seen become effective. 

"We bought more ads based on weather reports and airport closings," he said. 

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.