Addressing the Dichotomy of Ad Viewability

June 13, 2016

Part 4 of AAM's Guide to Media Transparency delves into some of the key issues that contribute to the challenges of ad viewability and the steps stakeholders can take to bring clarity to transacting on viewable ad impressions.


For AAM’s Guide to Media Transparency, we talked to leaders from all sides of the industry to answer one key question:

How do we build more accountability and transparency between marketers, media agencies, technology vendors and publishers for the long-term success of the media industry?

Part 1 gave an overview of how to build moreaccountability and transparency throughout the industry and Part 2 looked behind the scenes to understand the complexity of programmatic advertising. Part 3 took a closer look at the industry’s game plan for fighting back against fraud.

In Part 4, we delve into some of the key issues that contribute to the challenges of ad viewability and the steps stakeholders can take to bring clarity to transacting on viewable ad impressions.

Viewability: Measurement vs. Expectations

Five years ago the term “viewability” started to take root in the digital advertising world. Media buyers began questioning whether their ads were being seen by humans. Flash forward to 2013. The topic of viewability dominated headlines and stirred discussions on all sides of the industry about the possibility of transacting on a new currency—viewable ad impressions.

Now, while the industry has made significant strides in defining a viewable ad impression, the question of whether it is a viable form of currency is still up for debate. The lingering issues rest on the dichotomy between:


viewable ad metrics

First, the industry set standards around what is considered “in view.” Then, new companies entered the market to measure ads to the standards, each with their own methodology.

“We have industry definitions of viewability. However, there are multiple vendors for viewability,” explained Jeff Holecko, senior brand manager for Kimberly-Clark North America. “We even have agencies creating their own viewable standards. That’s creating issues. We need a single standard that buyers and sellers agree to, plan on and reconcile against.”




The industry is working to standardize how buyers and sellers transact on viewable ad impressions. But, depending on who you talk to, paying for viewable ad impressions means different things to different sides of the industry.

“There are still disparate points of view as to how long an ad should be on the page before its deemed viewable,” explained Ted Boyd, CEO of ad agency Brandworks International. “The biggest opportunity is to continue to hammer out what, from a user’s point of view, constitutes a viewable impression of any kind of media.”

So how can the industry come to an agreement on how to transact on viewable ad impressions? Let’s look into the standards, the underlying issues and the advice from industry leaders to explain how to bring more clarity to viewability.


Viewability By the Numbers

To better understand the barriers to full viewability, it is important to first understand the standards and players in the current media landscape. Here is the state of viewability by the numbers:


Sets of guidelines from the Media Rating Council for viewable ad impressions—one for ads served on desktop and one for mobile devices.



Best practices for transacting on viewable ad impressions from the IAB’s “State of Viewability” report.



MRC-accredited viewability vendors—each with their own viewability rating.



Ad tech vendors that each have their own way of measuring viewable ad impressions, plus thousands of publishers who have their own unique viewability guarantees and buyers with their own demands.


How Industry Standards Measure Up

In 2014 the MRC implemented interim guidelines stating that display ads have to be at least 50 percent in view for at least one second to be considered “viewable.” Two versions of the guidelines and one iteration for mobile later, many media buyers are demanding stricter standards, including 100 percent viewability, a movement championed by GroupM.

“We have an aggressive stance on viewability standards. In addition to our trading standard of 100 percent of pixels in view, we also require our preferred vendors to measure against the new MRC IVT Guidelines,” said Joe Barone, managing partner of digital operations for GroupM.

However, according to MediaCom Canada’s Senior Vice President of Digital Strategy Dominik Majka, the industry may need to adjust expectations to reach 100 percent viewability.

“The industry says we’re all on the same page, but we have clashing objectives because publishers need to monetize their websites and not all of the websites are exclusively represented,” Majka said. “It’s impossible to have high viewability at the current pricing model. They need to redefine how to price based on viewability and allow publishers to actually run their business.”


The Evolution of Viewability

  • 2011: The Making Measurement Make Sense (3MS) initiative is formed by the 4A’s, ANA and IAB and makes viewability a priority.
  • 2012–2014: Per 3MS, the MRC considers the possibility of transacting on viewable impressions and works with industry groups to develop standards for viewability measurement.
  • March 2014: The MRC issues its interim “Viewable Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines.”
  • 2015: The MRC releases its final version of the viewable ad impression guidelines and interim guidelines on mobile viewability. The IAB releases its “State of Viewability Transaction 2015.”
  • 2016: The MRC releases “Mobile Viewable Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines.”


Bringing the Underlying Issues with Viewability into View

When the industry first started to discuss viewability, many of the conversations focused on the structural elements—such as iframes and site placement—that impacted whether an ad was seen. Since the minimum standards for viewable ad impressions were established, the industry has shifted its focus to figuring out how to transact on the new currency.

In its “State of Viewability Transaction 2015” report, the IAB stated that guaranteeing advertisers 100 percent viewable ad impressions for campaigns is unreasonable and, instead, publishers should meet a 70 percent viewability threshold using the MRC minimum standards of 50 percent of pixels in view for one second.

In other words, while only 70 percent of an advertiser’s campaign met the minimum viewable standards, the advertiser should still pay for 100 percent of the impressions even though 30 percent were never seen by a human.

Holecko finds this standard unacceptable.

“There needs to be much more stringent industry effort to establish human, viewable impressions as the digital currency and have proper third-party audits against those deliveries,” Holecko said. “The thought of purchasing non-human and non-viewable impressions is untenable. Unfortunately, we’ve been slow to coordinate a proactive, progressive effort to holistically address the situation.”


Viewability rate of ads served via networks, exchanges and direct-publisher buying


While most publishers and buyers agree to transact based on the 70 percent threshold, some ad tech providers are responding to this demand by introducing an alternative option called a “vCPM,” or a viewable CPM, that only charges media buyers for the impressions that were actually seen.

In the last year Google’s DoubleClick ad platform and TV and video ad platform Videology have introduced vCPMs with support from MRC-accredited viewability vendors like Active View, Moat and Integral Ad Science.

For publishers like The Economist, they are taking a completely different approach to addressing viewability by offering advertisers the opportunity to purchase ads using a time-based approach.

“Measurement and viewability are really a proxy for audience attention,” said Nicolas Sennegon, global managing director and chief revenue office for The Economist. “If your readers can’t remember the content of an ad, you need to understand why.”


The media industry is willing to pay for high quality media


Whether it’s transacting on vCPMs or purchasing ads based on time spent, a recent study from Integral Ad Science points out that the industry is ready to pay for high-quality offerings. Of the publishers and media buyers surveyed, 71 percent said they are willing to charge or pay for high quality media and 78 percent said they would sell or buy media based on viewable ad impressions in 2016.

For larger advertisers and agencies that have the funds to transact on vCPMs, this is a step in the right direction. However, according to Holecko, high-quality and accountable media is something that should be available to all types of media buyers.

“Right now, it’s a ‘buyer beware’ environment and every advertiser needs to ensure safety on its own dime,” Holecko added. “That shouldn’t be the case. Ensuring the safety of digital investments shouldn’t be an advantage for large advertisers only. Whether you’re spending $1,000 or $10 million in digital, you should have complete trust that you’re buying impressions that are human and viewable.”

Even though viewability is a complicated and ongoing topic, there are best practices that everyone in the industry can follow to transact on viewable ad impressions with trust and transparency.


How You Can Help Bring Clarity to Ad Viewability

1. Know your partners.

Industry certifications bring transparency to measurement procedures and build trust into media transactions. Working with certified media partners not only ensures proper measurement procedures, but also guarantees buyers that their money is in good hands.

Certifications come in many forms. Ad tech vendors have the option of becoming certified to industry guidelines and standards published by organizations such as the MRC and IAB. Publishers can also become part of the solution by agreeing to use certified vendors.

To earn an industry certification, ad tech companies must undergo an independent audit that:

Thoroughly examines how their measurement methods, processes and controls function, and
Tests that their reporting is accurate, reliable and consistent.

90% of advertisers are not confident that the industry's viewability standards are being met

Ultimately, audits help assure publishers and media buyers that their vendors’ processes and procedures meet the criteria outlined in the MRC’s Viewable Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines.

“Marketers need to demand more accountability to be on par with what they require in traditional media,” said Steve Guenther, VP of digital auditing services at the Alliance for Audited Media. “If a company is compliant with industry guidelines and best practices and goes through the certification process, they’re committed to being good stewards of the advertiser’s dollar.”

Once you know that you’re working with trustworthy partners, it is important to define expectations for the transaction.

“It really gets back to transparency. Companies should have nothing to hide and should be proud of how they conduct business,” Guenther continued. “So, disclose information. For publishers, let advertisers know where their ads are being served. Be clear and communicate, and continue to take a leadership position in these matters.”


Inside the Audit: Measuring Ads that Are in View

For the last two decades, the industry has transacted on “served ad impressions.” Now it is working toward transacting on viewable ad impressions. So what’s the difference between the two? While companies have their own methodologies for measuring ad impressions, the following is a typical example of how ads are measured.

served ad impressionsA visitor visits a website that has an ad placement to fill. As the page loads in the browser, a call is made to the ad server to select an ad for delivery. Once the ad request is successfully fulfilled by the ad server, the ad server records the event in a log file. This is called a served ad impression.


rendered ad impressions

But this definition is expected to be expanded soon. The MRC is working with the IAB and Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) to update the IAB’s Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines to instead count when the ad is rendered on a page. When this happens the ad sends another call to the ad server after it has rendered on the page to address potential latency issues, especially with mobile devices. This is known as a rendered ad impression.


viewable ad impressionsFinally, when the ad code determines that the ad meets the viewable impression requirements (e.g. 50 percent of the pixels are in view for one consecutive second for display, or two consecutive seconds for video), the code fires another call to the ad server. This is called a viewable ad impression.


2. Support the companies and associations focused on transparency.

How can buyers and publishers work together to bring trust and transparency to transacting on viewable ad impressions?

For many buyers and publishers, the answer starts with true collaboration.

“It’s going to take a collective effort to solve these issues, starting with the ANA, 4A’s, IAB, TAG, MRC and the AAM,” Holecko said. “It shouldn’t exclude other associations, like the MPA, because everyone sells digital regardless of your legacy media. One group isn’t going to be able to tackle it alone.”

“The industry needs a more collective response to the problem,” Sennegon added. “What we have now is an initial framework and what we need to do to move forward is develop a more collective approach.”

“Marketing is all about outcomes,” said Preethy Vaidyanathan, SVP of product management for Medialets. “Is the measurement correct? Do I trust the investment? We work with organizations like the MRC and IAB and AAM to help set standards and educate the industry. We want to see more vendors become accredited because it helps educate the industry.”

3. Keep tabs on the industry’s evolving standards.

It is clear that many in the industry believe that the standards around viewability are going to continue to evolve. Be an advocate for standards that better reflect the realities of the industry. You can start doing this by following the IAB and their work under 3MS, as well as the MMA and the MRC. These organizations along with AAM are constantly evaluating and evolving the current standards.

“There has been tremendous progress in viewability,” Barone said. “But it’s still an issue because there are still a couple of islands. There is still the need for education. There is still development work to eliminate non-viewable inventory and define the digital GRP to make digital comparable with television, which is the goal of the work with 3MS. The work goes on for sure.”

“We need to continue to force the conversations on viewability to a conclusion where everybody’s not quite happy,” Boyd added. “If one group is very happy and another one isn’t, that’s not a perfect deal. But if everyone comes away from the negotiating table a little bit unhappy, we’re probably pretty close to something that works.”

In the next white paper, we’ll look at how publishers and advertisers can address the effects of ad blocking on the media industry.

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