And that’s a big issue sitting on the MRC’s plate right now – discrepancy reconciliation.
“The biggest challenge still rests around what’s creating the discrepancy between buyers and sellers in terms of the different measurement technologies and approaches, and how those are being accredited,” said David Hahn, SVP of product management at fraud and viewability vendor Integral Ad Science, which has MRC accreditation for its display and video viewability services.
It’s causing friction between publishers, advertisers and their agencies.
“Why is the data different between different vendors? That’s a fair criticism and a definite challenge,” Hahn said. “It takes a lot of work to resolve for the different technologies. Whether the onus is on the MRC or the individual buyer to have an understanding of the different technologies – I’m not sure what the right answer is.”
George Ivie, CEO of the MRC, acknowledges that this is a legitimate and ongoing pain point for buyers and sellers alike.
“If you tag an ad campaign for the measurement of viewability and you choose more than one viewability vendor to do it, some of the numbers you get from each are going to differ one from the other,” Ivie said.
The MRC has issued a series of what it calls “reconciliation guidelines” to bring the difference in viewable impression counts between vendors into better alignment, including tips around how to handle nonrendered served ads, out-of-focus conditions – browsers will often render images without full crispness and clarity until they move into the viewable window – and straight-up human error.
“Some of the guidelines are really granular, dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin things, but they’re increasing the consistency we’re seeing in measurement between vendors,” Ivie said. “What started off as a difference as high as 30% is now more under control.”
Because of the terms under which the MRC was founded in the 1960s (it was started by the US government as a self-regulating not-for-profit industry body in reaction to the quiz show ratings scandal in the late 1950s), it’s the council’s job to evaluate any vendor that approaches it.
“We were formed to legitimize measurement services, and if a company comes to us and wants to be accredited, we have to audit them,” Ivie said. “We have to give them the opportunity to be legitimized.”
That leads to a situation in which the MRC is obliged to audit and potentially accredit vendors before a standard has been set. At that point, the accreditation process – a fairly detailed ordeal – involves answering the fundamental question: Does this vendor’s technology actually do what it claims?
“But all of those vendors we audit before the standard is issued know that when the standard is final, they have to adopt it or they lose their accreditation,” Ivie said.
Considering that the MRC is a team of just six full-time staff, the council acts more as an oversight body, contracting work out to audit firms with large 50+ person tech teams, like PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young and Deloitte.
“It’s a challenge to keep up with the technology, yes, but the real challenge comes in keeping our standards up to date,” Ivie said. “The moment we issue a set of standards, the clock starts to tick. The display impression standard is only a year old, and in the time since we wrote it, some browsers have introduced page visibility APIs, and Flash introduced a tool that can tell you whether an ad is becoming viewable or not. We now have to go back and look at the standard to decide whether to change it according to what’s evolving in the tech environment.”
The 100% Debate
At this point in the game, the IAB’s Mane called the viewability debate more of an “N and N” situation – nuance and negotiation.
“It’s much more about negotiation around measurement right now than it is about people who just don’t know or don’t understand,” Mane said. “There are many nuances around measurement that still need to be worked out, but there does seem to be an understanding coalescing around the idea that not every ad will be 100% viewable all the time. For a while that was not understood, but it’s starting to be understood now.”
When the IAB issued a report in December stating that 100% viewability for campaigns isn’t yet possible – it stated that 70% is a more realistic number in the short-term – the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies) sent a letter to its members stating that until 100% viewability is a reality. “Clients should be expected to pay only for the portion of the campaign that was measurable and viewable,” it read.
And that’s still where the 4As – and the ANA for that matter – stand today.
“Our position is that our members only want to pay for viewable impressions,” said Bill Tucker, EVP of the 4As media practice. “That does not mean we think 100% viewability can be achieved at this time – it cannot. But we need to continue to work to deliver as close as we can to 100% viewability when driving campaigns, so we can build business for our clients. That’s our focus right now.”
Ivie and the MRC agree – to a point. A single ad can be 100% viewable, but it’s not technologically feasible to apply that same percentage to overall campaigns, he said.
“If an ad has no opportunity to be seen, it shouldn’t be counted and, accordingly, it shouldn’t be monetized. Viewability is a binary function – either you meet the criteria or not,” Ivie said. “A marketer can say that they only want to pay for ads that are viewable, but they shouldn’t expect that their ad campaign is going to be 100% viewable. What they could do is cherry-pick out impressions that are 100% viewable and just pay for those, and have their sell-side partners sell more impressions until they get to the goal.”
It’s a situation that will lead, at least in the near term, to inventory scarcity and higher prices.
“When people say they only want to pay for 100% viewable impressions, I don’t think they fully understand just yet how much available inventory is shrinking because of that decision, and it’s significant,” Ivie said.