The Fog of Viewability

“It’s verification all over again!” 

I smirked on overhearing this statement following an intense discussion on viewability at the Digital Brand Forum in New York City recently. For an ad tech reporter, the verification battles were boon times – there were plenty of digital inches available to sop up the endless vitriol and accusations spewing forth from all corners of the industry. A little viewability brouhaha could be just the kick in the pants digital advertising needs to get its mojo back!

Certainly, the aforementioned viewability panel seemed on the verge of all-out fracas, bringing an appropriately climatic close to one of the liveliest industry events I have ever attended. The Digital Brand Forum – which doubly served as a commemoration of the four-year partnership between Legolas Media and Neustar AdAdvisor (pre-acuqisition name: TARGUSinfo) as well as a debutante ball for new Legolas CEO Jonathon Shaevitz, who previously manned the helm at Maxifier – hosted a feisty crowd of digital strategists that also added insight and debate to panels on data partnerships (moderated by AdExchanger’s John Ebbert) and programmatic premium (moderated by moí).

But the viewability panel had to be the most contentious session of the day. For AdMonsters, it’s been a real bear to get publishers to open up on the topic, though we’re happy to have Wendy Mazzoni, VP of Ad Ops at Glam Media leading a breakout session on viewability at our Publisher Forum in Sonoma this March (oh, to be a fly on the wall in that room – it’s a closed-door affair). This is a topic that the supply side is generally staying mum on – and considering the lack of progress in finding consensus on measurement tactics, maybe that’s the right call.

No, viewability is not a repeat of the verification saga, even if many of the players and issues (e.g., inconsistent practices) seem familiar. Emotions may actually be higher around this subject, and definitely more varied – not just intense irritation, but a fair deal of fear. 

While the IAB issued the much-desired guidelines for verification, viewability is being handled by an industry advocacy supergroup made up of the IAB, the 4A’s and the ANA, cleverly called Making Measurement Make Sense or 3MS. And 3MS’ first goal is to switch the digital advertising industry from an impression-based standard to a viewability-based standard. Bit more drastic than guidelines.

No One Solution

Long before a new standard can set off shockwaves throughout the industry, there must be a consensus on measurement – which doesn’t even appear to be close. Yieldex Cofounder/CSO and noted viewability disparager Tom Shields pointed out that the tech companies currently pushing viewability all have very different approaches to measurement – and have had wildly varying results.

“It’s easy to get behind – viewability has a lot of momentum right now,” Shields said. “But the technology does not currently exist to measure viewability consistently. In addition, none of the solutions agree with each other.” However, he cautioned, this doesn’t mean viewability technology won’t work in the future.

One publisher’s experience echoed Shields: in trials, none of the solutions were impressive, but they all were incredibly expensive.

We’re at the very beginning of the conversation, argued Barry Lowenthal, President at The Media Kitchen. Much of the push for viewability is coming from the demand side as agencies – he and other agencies would be happy to pay more for a viewed impression. “I’m tired of cookie-bombing. I just want people who see my ads,” he said.

Plus, “Publishers are working toward a viewable world,” he said, citing the recent USA Today redesign, which eschewed ad clutter for a straightforward experience. (I called this part of the “diminishing inventory movement.”)

“How many more brand dollars are going to enter the space because of viewability?” Shields asked. He suggested we’re simply creating more fear and confusion by adding another metric to the most measured industry.

One attendee asked, aren’t ads that can’t be viewed already priced into CPMs? Speaking of CPM, wouldn’t a viewability standard give an unfair advantage to bigger publishers who can afford such technology? Should we even use CPM as a pricing unit anymore?

Another audience member used an apt grocery store analogy: you can buy the whole fish for $5, or just the filet for $10. In the latter case, the labor is priced in. Tech can work the same way.

Quality Metric

Carl Fremont, EVP and Media Director at Digitas and panelist #3, agreed that viewability is still in its infancy, and imagined that success a year from now would mainly be around composing a better definition. He commented that he felt like he sat in the middle of the issue because he saw viewability as a quality metric.

 “Viewability is one metric in an arsenal, not the be-all end-all,” Fremont said.

This took my mind back to the session I’d moderated just before – another lively panel featuring Vik Kathuria, General Partner, Digital Investment at Mediacom; Christine Peterson, Director of Media Services at LBi (who in April will detail her provocative take on the trading desks’ future at OPS Markets – more details soon); and the majority of the audience. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to chat much about programmatic guaranteed (Legolas calls their version of this “Intelligent Media Buying”) because the debate got tied up over the term “premium.”

Sociomantic CEO Jason Kelly (who did a fine job moderating the viewability panel) best vocalized the frustration – “Why is it all about this term premium?”

Indeed, why? In that epic I wrote on programmatic premium a few months ago, I tried to suggest that the endgame of programmatic premium is likely the death of the term premium. As I’ve opined before, I see a future in which 75%-80% of standardized inventory is bought on an automated basis – via exchanges, private marketplaces and programmatic guaranteed. Direct sales will be dedicated to highly customized, integrated products, for many of which the creative will be developed in tandem with the advertiser or agency (hence the “native” revolution).

Ideally, standardized inventory will be valued via a series of line items, each with their own value – a checklist, basically. An audience line (based on the value of the segment), a positioning line, maybe a context line (but as The Weather Company’s Vikram Somaya suggested, that’s a hurdle that still needs to be overcome) and others… Including a viewability line. One that’s optional.

So the question then is if viewability is a quality metric, do we need a viewability standard? Should impressions be measured on a viewability basis rather than served? Can multiple viewability models/technologies exist – with every publisher choosing their preferred provider or none at all. If the pub chooses the latter, it will have to assume advertisers will pay less for that inventory – line item not included. 

Doesn’t that sound a bit more democratic?