“The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today’s column is written by Bennett Zucker, senior vice president of revenue platforms, ad operations and data solutions at Ziff Davis, a j2 Global Inc. company.
The most accountable and measurable medium is having another “Whoops, we did it again” moment.
A generation ago, the clickable banner kicked off digital advertising’s long climb to media’s mountaintop. Impressed by our ability to prove performance with this simple mechanism, we enthusiastically bound ourselves to the click as the smart alternative to traditional media’s quaint opportunity-to-see standard. Twenty years later, we are still debating the click’s true value and role.
If we’re not careful, the viewable impression may become this generation’s click: misunderstood and overrated, yet central to valuing the output of an entire industry. But while the click became both a performance metric and key ingredient in digital’s planning and pricing crockpot, the lofty goal of the viewable impression is to be the singular transactional unit upon which billions of media dollars depend for measuring inventory quality and brand engagement, and for pricing, billing and revenue recognition.
Most premium publishers support the principles of viewability. We believe that digital can and must always strive to do more than any other medium to demonstrate to marketers our superior ability to reach and engage target audiences in high-quality environments with great efficiency and at massive scale.
Principle and practice are in a tangle in viewability measurement. The leading trade organizations, including the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Association of National Advertisers and Interactive Advertising Bureau, have thrown their weight behind the 50%/one-second standard for display ads. The Media Rating Council (MRC) has accredited 15 measurers of viewable display and viewable video impressions. Ad agencies routinely include viewability reporting with most campaigns for many clients.
Premium publishers are rethinking page design and ad delivery with the viewability standard in mind. We want to work with marketers and vendors to make the viewable impression a standard that once again vaults us past other media for transparency and accountability.
So where’s the “whoops” in all this good news? What we don’t want to see is premature adoption of a flawed metric as currency for transactions. There are several challenges we face in the rush to replace the served impression with the viewable impression as the billable unit of digital media.
Too Many Vendors
About a dozen of the 15 accredited companies offer measurement solutions to ad buyers and, to a lesser extent, ad sellers. Each uses different black-box technology and jargon to describe their approach and quantify their results. Most publishers and agencies lack the expertise to understand the technologies or the reports they generate, let alone how to evaluate and select from among such a large group of possible partners.
Five years ago, the founder of one of today’s leading measurers asked me who I thought would pay for his fledgling ad-verification technology, which was a precursor of today’s viewability and fraud-detection services.
It was easier to say who would not pay. Agencies wouldn’t pay because clients wouldn’t accept the charges. Ad exchanges wouldn’t pay because they were leading sources of noncompliant inventory. And publishers wouldn’t pay for the privilege of losing money to an ad tech’s disqualification of their inventory as noncompliant for one obscure reason or another.
In other words, I advised him, find another way. Months later, I approved the first of many payments for his and other companies’ verification fees when agencies demanded it on behalf of clients. The startups had convinced agencies that what was then called ad verification was a mission-critical client service for which publishers could not refuse to pay.
What started four years ago as a trickle of campaigns became a torrent earlier this year when MRC lifted its advisory on transacting on viewability, forcing publishers to consider adding these buy-side services to their own tech stacks. The measurers now expect publishers to pay two to four times more for viewability measurement than we already pay for ad serving, even as agencies continue auto-forwarding their campaign viewability invoices.
Due to the immaturity of the measurers and their technologies and the complexity of our ecosystem, a vast amount of inventory today is not even measurable. There is disagreement over the recently released two-second video impression standard. And there is no standard or accredited methodology at all for measuring mobile device impressions. This means we are contemplating changing the industry’s revenue structure when there is no insight available at all into the majority of impressions being delivered.
Viewability is a good thing and it’s right for us to pursue it. But the viewable impression as currency is not ready for prime time. We need more time for the vendor landscape to settle and for ad buyers and sellers to agree on what viewability means, and on when and how to use it as a key performance indicator.
Only then can we make informed decisions about its suitability to be the new coin of the realm.