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Viewability isn’t ready to become a currency but Heineken and the Telegraph think it could be soon

An agreed metric to trade on viewability is all well and good but an agreed way of creating that currency is needed first - something Heineken and Telegraph Media Group worry could be done by global media owners before industry trade bodies.

There are companies currently telling publishers they will only count 100 per cent in-view impressions, in stark contrast to the industry standard 50 per cent in view for one second. It’s ruffled publishers, who argue that unbundling non-viewable impressions is no easy task, and also spotlights industry discussions as to whether to trade on viewability, or use it as an optimisation tool.

For a long time advertisers and publishers have been optimising toward completion rates yet have never known if anyone’s actually seen an ad. And while many buyers claim to now be trading on viewability for campaigns, few sellers are, preferring to run their own viewability studies rather than work directly with publishers. It’s one of many reasons why digital measurement isn’t where it needs to be today although Heineken and the Telegraph believe the foundations are in place – all that’s needed is an agreed industry-wide consensus.

“Viewability is a starting point to talk about other metrics that are more important like brand safety,” said Elizabeth Hodson, a media manager at Heineken, speaking at a recent TubeMogul event. “Just because you can’t cover all the media doesn’t mean that’s acceptable. If we have the metric then let’s use it.”

Marketers, unsettled by reports that some of their ads are never seen, are pressuring publishers and media agencies to make sure their ads are fully viewable. Conversely, publishers are pushing back though their efforts to put a premium on viewability guarantees are hampered by measurement discrepancies due to the breadth of accredited providers currently operating.

It’s an argument that usually goes something like this; advertisers pay premium prices to ensure their ads have a chance to be seen, however part of that buy includes ads that definitely won’t be in-view, which they aren’t willing to pay for.

“We don’t know the right questions to ask and publishers don’t know what the right answers to give us,” continued Hodson. “The challenge is the lack of trust. I expect my ad to be seen for the minimum or whatever measurement we decide. Whether or not I’m happy for that to three seconds to be a limit, that’s not entirely up to me. It’s where the context of the ad is being placed."

The viewability as a currency debate goes as far back as 2012, and has since been stoked with guidelines on both sides of the Atlantic that have green-lit trading on viewability, but not yet agreed what that ad impression looks like. It’s this confusion that’s contributing to growing distrust at the moment as shown by the sharp criticisms from Unilever and WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell earlier this month at the lack of clarity around the value, validation and viewability of online media.

The Telegraph Media Group is trying retain this trust, having just gone through a six month process assessing four vendors, each measuring different things despite claiming to do the same. It’s settled on two for now because it believes their tech has the ability to reconcile discrepancies (once a standard is set).

“[Both the vendors] give different numbers for different things and we’re supposed to trade off that?” said Telegraph Media Group’s sales and trading director Jim Freeman at the same event.

He further explained that this frequently results in a case of media buyers favouring one set of results, while media owners favour the other. He added: “I can’t run a business like that; our content is in jeopardy because of it.”

Hodson said: “My concern is that if there’s only one [vendor] then where’s the competition to make sure they’re keeping up to date with the next new format or measurement. It would be great to have one, but I’d worry it would then stop and the standard is rooted in 2016, no longer able to keep pace with change.”

Multiple vendors could feasibly operate under an agreed standard with their offerings becoming more focused on add-ons like customer service and auditing. This scenario is possible once trade bodies are able to find out the capabilities of each vendors, and ensure they’re doing side-by-side comparisons to offer more clarity. Accreditation in the UK and US are getting closer to one another with a breakthrough in discussions imminent.

“We’re getting close to a degree of consensus [around trading on viewablity],” said Steve Chester, head of data and industry programmes at IAB UK on the same panel. “We can measure it to a degree, so let’s make use of it rather than waiting two years for standards to come out. We’re getting to a point where [advertisers] are using viewaiblity to inform campaigns but don’t use it as a blunt instrument just yet.”

It’s a clear and present danger that many advertisers are yet to fully grasp. Unless an advertiser knows whether someone is seeing their ad then they can’t measure or optimise, meaning they can’t learn to improve. And let’s just say that there is a standard agreed measurement, it still leaves advertisers and publishers with two glaring issues; CPMs will naturally rise and publishers will need to come up with page designs where viewability is non-intrusive, and still good tor the user experience.

“It’s about creating user experiences that actually works for brands and agencies and not just one that works to game the viewability system,” warned Adam Hancox, programmatic associate director at Starcom MediaVest.

To that end, TMG is currently redesigning its site, refreshing all aspects with viewability very much at the core of its purpose. The intention being that it could charge higher CPMs off the back of inventory that has a better chance of being seen. It’s a move that could see some advertisers balk at the increased prices regardless of TMG’s claims that the inventory is premium.

“I don’t buy into the fact that when we haven’t traded on viewability an agency or a client can come into the market and then say ‘your viewability is poor’ [to a seller], and then consequently aren’t prepared to pay for half of the inventory,” said Nick Reid, managing director of Tubemogul. “If we trade off viewability then fair enough.”

It brings the argument back full circle to whether viewability can be used as a currency. Integral Ad Science’s UK managing director Niall Hogan doesn’t think so. He added: “I still think the UK market needs a hell a lot of confidence and is about nine months behind the US.

“Digital needs to get its own house in order. The reason we’re all taking about viewability is because last touch attribution is flawed. The digital industry needs to stop looking at magazines, cinema and TV and deliver good quality ads.”

Beyond that, marketers and publishers are wising up to the fact that an agreed approach towards viewability can help them address the far more complicated issues around brand safety and fraud. Brand safety is something many media experts argue should be controllable but it’s reliant on the tech, whereas viewability is something that advertisers can optimise towards.

Featured by The Drum