Ad Viewability Debate Disrupts the Marketplace

No guarantees

Call them crazy, but advertisers want to make sure people can see their online ads. Yet the industry isn’t quite ready to meet that requirement. And that’s a big problem.

Indeed, as the industry wrestles with how to make sure its ads are actually viewable, the prolonged debate is wreaking havoc on the marketplace.

A few weeks ago, the Media Ratings Council announced that the technology for tracking viewability is not ready for prime time and explicitly advised publishers not to promise advertisers viewability. The problem is, with comScore finding that about 50 percent of Web ads go unseen, clients are demanding that viewability guarantees be written into contracts.

That’s happening even as more than a dozen vendors are vying to become the de facto viewability tracker. Often buyers and sellers work with different partners, leading to wild discrepancies, according to both buyers and sellers. “You tend to see a lot of disparity among vendors,” said Curt Hecht, chief global revenue officer at The Weather Company.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau expects that its technology, SafeFrame, should be rolled out widely by December (all part of the grander 3MS initiative), but even then the organization can’t force a single solution on the industry.

Here’s how seriously the demand side of the business is taking the issue, even as they wait for the MRC. GroupM has run extensive tests with 12 different vendors. “There’s no value to nonviewable ads. So this is huge,” said Ari Bluman, GroupM’s chief digital investment officer. But Bluman, who represents one of the biggest buyers out there, added, “We’re not panicking."

Bluman might not be worried, but publishers, particularly ad networks and midsize sites, are taking it on the chin.

“We’re starting to see the buyers apply the pressure and the sellers respond in kind, but the different methodologies for viewability are preventing us from agreeing on a standard for guarantees,” said Chris Paul, general manager of Audience On Demand. “Without the standard, even the most compliant publishers run the risk of unpredictable swings in ad revenue depending on whose methodology or methodologies the advertiser adopts.”

Publishers often don’t have visibility into what data buyers have and thus are forced to overdeliver on campaigns to satisfy viewability demands. “It’s basically a new currency with no standards,” said Andrew Casale, vp of strategy at Casale Media.

“That means big potential losses for sellers,” added Eric Franchi, co-founder of Undertone.

Tom O’Regan, president and CRO of Martini Media, noted that advertisers have long bought ad inventory by negotiating based on a blend of expensive and cheaper inventory. But when viewability is brought into the mix, it reduces the supply for many publishers, causing CPM spikes. “Agencies are like, ‘What, you’ve been ripping me off all these years?’ ” he said. “Publishers are freaking out.”

No one in the ad industry is advocating for nonviewable impressions, but O’Regan said even the IAB’s oversized Rising Stars ads are a problem since they don’t load quickly on various Web pages and can be counted as nonviewable.

“I’ve heard it,” said Sherrill Mane, IAB’s svp, research, analytics and measurement. “I can’t go anywhere without someone asking me about viewability. Publishers are bearing much of the burden. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of challenges to overcome, but we’re working quite diligently to solve them by 2014.”

The IAB's SafeFrame product, which provides publishers with visibility into what ads third parties run on their site, is ready, according to CEO George Ivie. The organization just needs more time to work out the implementation logistics, while also working to audit more third-party companies that claim to track viewability. “The bottom line is, this is a disruptive challenge. But a shift is coming.”

Until then, some publishers, including, are revamping their sites so that every single impression is viewable, no matter what. Said Moritz Loew, Time’s vp, sales: “Just take the discussion off the table.”

Or publishers could just say "no" to buyers' viewability demands and see how that goes. One large Web brand said it tried that tactic, only to lose business. “I don’t know many publishers strong-arming clients these days,” said Loew.

Still, not every publisher is seeing such a battle over viewability. Mark Howard, svp, digital advertising strategy at Forbes Media, said his company has pushed to get out in front of the viewability challenge by testing multiple vendors. He’s not feeling the heat from buyers. “Everything is going according to plan,” he said.

There are some that believe that all this planning may be for naught because of a simple move by a familiar player. Google is planning to build viewability tools into its DoubleClick ad server, for free, which could obviate the need for multiple vendors specializing in viewability. “For the publishers that use Google, it will become a Google metric,” said Jonah Goodhart, CEO of Moat.

That is an interesting and telling admission, considering that Moat is one of the players tracking viewability in this space.