Brands With Their Own Viewability Standards Are Causing Headaches for the Ad-Tech Industry

IBM and others aren't satisfied with the definition of an online view

Marketers continue to question the MRC's standards established in 2014. Sources: Getty Images
Headshot of Lauren Johnson

Four years into creating an industry standard for viewability that was meant to assure advertisers humans are seeing their online ads, brands are still fine-tuning the metrics used to gauge whether someone saw a promo. And in turn, tension between advertisers, publishers and ad-tech companies is increasing from the manual work needed to change processes.

IBM is the latest brand to demand more from its digital advertising partners. In an email to publishers (including Adweek) in December from the brand and its agency GroupM, IBM said it started making transactions off of stricter viewability standards than watchdog group Media Rating Council, or MRC, calls for.

“We have been clear over the years that our goal was to enhance [the MRC’s] definition over time and that we would be tracking and optimizing against greater pixels in view and time spent,” read the email.

In 2014, the MRC established a set of standards to measure viewability, requiring 50 percent of a display ad to be in view on a screen for one second (two seconds for video ads) before an advertiser is charged.

But that definition of viewability doesn’t cut it for IBM. On Jan. 1, the tech giant started requiring that its ads meet two new guidelines that align with GroupM’s recently revamped metrics: 100 percent of display ads must be in view for one second, and 100 percent of a video must in view for 50 percent of its duration with sound in order for IBM to be charged for an impression.

“There isn’t that 30-second standard—there’s a bunch of different elements, and research can show different things can have an impact on your business,” said Babs Rangaiah, executive partner of global marketing iX at IBM. “I think it’s imperative that any business figure out what [their viewability standard] is.”

IBM isn’t alone. HP and Nestle have also created their own viewability standards, and increasingly, the standard created four years ago is becoming outdated for the complex world of programmatic advertising.

“As each brand gets much more sophisticated about how they do programmatic advertising, they will start to hone in on viewability as a way of actually judging how much of media was affected,” said Will Doherty, vp of business development at Index Exchange. “They’re going to create their own standard in which they judge.”

Today, viewability measures whether people have a legitimate chance of seeing an ad as they scroll down a page.

“In the future, I think we’ll move towards a system where viewable means this person had the chance to see the ad, and it was in view for long enough to make an impact,” said Amit Joshi, director of product and data science at Forensiq, an Impact Radius company.

John Murphy, head of marketplace quality at OpenX, said he’s noticed a handful of brands creating their own viewability standards because they feel the MRC’s definition is the “lowest-common-denominator standard.” In one case, he said, a brand asked for a five-second viewability standard, requiring that 100 percent of an ad stayed in view for five seconds before they were charged.

“There’s enough interest among brands and agencies in tweaking the standard that it would behoove the MRC to take another look at the definition,” he said. “I would certainly encourage the MRC to do a reset and take another look given where the industry is now versus where they were when the definition was originally established.”

A wave of data headaches

Brands and agencies lean on stricter viewability standards to eliminate poorly performing ads and cut media costs, but custom metrics can be a headache for publishers and ad-tech companies because of the extra work required to create customized reports and tweaks to measurement software.

“It makes it harder for clients to line up across the ecosystem,” Joshi said.

In other words, programmatic advertising is becoming less programmatic and requires more manual processes.

For all the promise of programmatic advertising in creating automated ad-buying systems that run through algorithms and software, the fight over viewability is another sign that advertisers want to take back control. Instead of relying on machines to spit out reports that measure one metric for all brands, custom viewabilty metrics require ad-tech companies and publishers to manually pull reports for advertisers using a brand’s specific requirements.

If the trend expands to dozens of advertisers, OpenX’s Murphy worries that custom viewability metrics will change the fundamental technology behind programmatic advertising.

“I don’t want to get into a situation where there are 50 to 60 standards out there, and each campaign is working off of a different standard because that destroys the liquidity of the ecosystem and the efficiency that we’ve all gained from programmatic advertising,” he said. “There is a tremendous value in having a single standard that everyone abides by.”

He said custom viewability metrics are mostly used in private marketplaces where there is less inventory and more control used in reporting.

“It’s not something that can be introduced in short order,” Murphy said. “It takes planning and requires much more manual intervention than other campaigns would.”

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.