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What Counts as an Online Ad View? A Standard Is Nearing, but the Fight’s Not Over Brands, publishers and trade groups inch toward agreement

Just as major advertising players finally seemed close to defining what should count as a billable ad impression online, a few blistering comments from AmEx show that the industry might be farther from consensus than many had hoped.

Rachel Herskovitz, global media manager at American Express, while speaking on an industry panel on Tuesday, took the Media Ratings Council to task with comments that underscore the rift that remains between brands and digital publishers who run their ads.

Specifically, she took issue with the MRC’s year-old standard that 50 percent of a desktop display ad needs to be in view for one second to be an impression that brands should pay for. She also might have been referencing the MRC desktop video standard, which says 50 percent of an online spot needs to be in view for two seconds to be billable.

“I don’t agree with MRC standards,” said Herskovitz, according to AdExchanger. “Their definition of viewability doesn’t make sense. No one spends a second viewing an ad. If that becomes our standard, we’ll build technology around that, and I think that’s a mistake.”

While she agreed there needs to be an industrywide definition of viewability, she seemed opposed to something as fleeting as one or two seconds counting as a billable view.

Debating Policy, or Posturing?

Sherrill Mane, SVP of research, analytics and measurement at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, yesterday said that her organization, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) “are in lock step in support of the MRC and its position as the standards-setting body.” The four groups are part of an ongoing project called Making Measurement Make Sense—or the 3MS, for short.

“Much of the public debate is really not about the standard: It is posturing and negotiating,” Mane said. “The standard is the standard. It was developed by agencies, advertisers and publishers. It is supported by empirical data. Billions of impressions were analyzed down to the millisecond by the MRC.”

The MRC’s metrics gained wider notice late last year, when the IAB suggested that the standards—if met 70 percent of the time—constitute a 100 percent chargeable campaign.

In December, the 4A’s sent a letter to its members, advising them to reject the IAB’s suggestion. Then on Jan. 29, the two parties issued a statement alongside the ANA, saying they were working together to bridge the gap that divides buyers and sellers on this subject. And on Feb. 19, it was unveiled that Facebook had begun working with the MRC, IAB and Nielsen on creating standards for mobile ads.

Indeed, more than a few noteworthy developments have emerged on this front in recent weeks—not to mention the past year, when the viewability issue began rapidly taking shape after the MRC lifted its display advisory.

Yet the task of getting publishers, vendors, agencies and brands on the same page, in the words of one anonymous rep for a notable industry player, remains “a bit of a shit show.” At the same time, nearly all players agree that the debate—which has been in play for years—has meaningfully pushed forward in the past 12 months.

Viewability as an Elusive New Currency

“Despite all of the noise, progress is absolutely happening,” said Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade org focused on the concerns of digital publishers. “The technology wasn’t ready [at this time] last year. But both sides have gotten educated and have matured.”

Mane of the IAB echoed one of Kint’s points: “What’s next is more education and assistance to ensure that the viewability standard is only the first step in the larger plan for 3MS—transforming measurement for digital and legacy media.”

James Aitken, CEO of The Exchange Lab, said these initiatives “will add more confidence with marketers spending more in is space. Marketers want it, and publishers should be for it.”

Amex didn’t respond to questions from Adweek about Herskovitz’s tough stance on the MRC. But its position jibes with other huge marketers, such as Kellogg’s, stating they only want to pay for viewed impressions, whether the problem at hand is click fraud or ads served out of a consumer’s sight.

While the brand community—the party holding the purse strings—to some may appear to be haggling, publishers seem surprisingly willing to meet halfway.

“There were some publishers last year who were resistant to responding to [requests for proposals] that had viewability or goals associated with them,” said Anita Khosla, vp of product management at Yieldex, a measurement player with clients like Weather. “And we now are seeing more and more publishers respond to those. … Viewability is going to become the new currency, and they need to start learning how to transact in that kind of world.”

Bringing Order to Chaos

Brian Fitzgerald, president of digital publisher Evolve Media, said the industry eventually “can get there” when it comes to establishing a widely accepted viewability standard, but he lamented that there are more than a dozen MRC-accredited measurement vendors that have different criteria for viewability.

“Imagine the chaos and [TV] marketplace inefficiency if there were 16 Nielsens, ABCs or Arbitrons, all reporting wildly disparate ratings for their respective markets,” he remarked.

For a little serenity-driven inspiration, digital may want to look to the billboard industry, which a few years ago reined in multiple measurement companies to evidently create an accepted industry currency for impressions.

“Everything is on an even playing field now,” said George Heissenberger, an accounts supervisor for out-of-home-focused agency Butler/Till. “By and large, most of the major and minor players in the outdoor industry have adopted the standard. Whereas before, there might have been three different companies that were arriving at their [daily effective circulation] numbers by their own proprietary [measures].”

And that’s apparently the kind of progress the MRC and its partners are looking to accomplish. In the aforementioned late-January letter with the IAB, ANA and 4As, the MRC requested specific data sets from brands, agencies and publishers in order to “identify campaigns for which multiple MRC-accredited viewability providers’ measurements can be tested and compared.”

“As for whether companies will give the MRC the data they want, with today’s focus on viewability and tomorrow’s trading on attention, it’ll be par for the course for a publisher to supply MRC with the requested data,” said Sean Finnegan, chief strategy officer for True[X]. “Unwillingness to do so will look suspect.”

Better Standards, Higher Costs?

So the work continues, and the debates rage on, but the marketplace probably needs to continue to show the kind of progress it’s exhibited in order for all parties to keep from falling into a gridlock-induced malaise on the subject of viewability.

“We are continually looking to refine and improve how vendors, publishers, agencies and advertisers adopt and leverage the metrics and anticipated, at the outset, that there would be a healthy level of discussion and debate surrounding the viewable Impression and viewability,” said Duke Fanelli, the CMO for ANA.

“A greater degree of transparency will help, but as a baseline, we need a more consistent and unified definition of what viewability means, for both brands and publishers,” said Adam Shlachter, DigitasLBi chief investment officer. “From there we can focus on additional quality metrics such as engagement, time spent, interactions and, ultimately, contribution to [return on investment].”

Rob Emrich’s, CEO of The Mobile Majority, added, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Probably not all boats in this case, but establishing a viewability currency will likely lift the price of digital advertising since the inventory will improve.

“Marketers should take into account the cost of viewability,” said Aitken of The Exchange Lab.

Certainly, if this viewability scrum reaches a conclusion, it won’t necessarily mean an end to the debate. Technological advances aside, that’s simply called the perpetual state of business.

“It’s a free marketplace, so everyone can do what they want,” Kint from DCN said. “If one advertiser requests 100 percent and another asks for something else, it creates friction and can cause confusion. Those differences need to be worked out.”