As I’ve written in the past, the opposite of viewability, which is the current state of affairs in display, undermines the very fabric of the online display ecosystem. Advertisers are paying for billions of impressions that nobody will ever see, and these drive down performance as well as price (if there’s no perceived value, then why pay a premium?). Brand marketers should be furious, but instead they’re encouraged to turn a blind eye to what amounts to millions of wasted dollars. With viewability measures in place, efficiency may fluctuate, while performance increases and inventory decreases can lead to an eventual rise in price to match. Publishers who embrace viewability will actually benefit from the initiative, once the initial shock wears off.
The challenge of viewability is that the programmatic ecosystem does not support it, and therefore neither do the media-buying agencies. As programmatic continues to grow, viewability measures become more difficult to fully integrate. This is an increasingly difficult challenge, as the majority of the ecosystem is either currently built on, or headed towards, the exchange model. There are billions of impressions being bought, sold and traded blindly. Ads are priced and marked and someone on the other end bids and buys them without necessarily confirming the value of viewable ads. Viewability is not a requirement or check box of any kind, so it’s almost impossible to enforce.
That leaves viewability in the eye of the buyer, and that’s where the agencies come in. The agency can only hold so many publishers to task to ensure viewability because of time and budget constraints. If publishers say the inventory is viewable, agency buyers mostly have to take their word for it. Of course there are technology overlays, which can be placed on top of the exchanges to ensure viewability and reduce fraud, but these cost money. Who is going to pay for that?
The typical agency media buyer is concerned with efficiency first because that is a direct area of control for her and one she tends to be measured by. Performance is secondary because, lets face it, the buyer can always blame the creative for not working. Buyers are not inclined to add costs for fraud monitoring, viewability monitoring and other areas on top of their buys because it effectively removes a portion of their working media from the mix.
I have bought media directly for almost 20 years in this industry and my first order of business was always to get more for less cost, pure and simple. Even ad serving costs, low as they are, were a pain. Rich-media serving costs and now data costs all add up, which leaves not a whole lot of wiggle room for the items the industry has not quite deemed “necessary,” like viewability.
Many people feel the decision rests on the marketers to dictate the use of these tools to maintain value in association with their brand. There is a strong associative value to seeing your ad in a proper context, and there’s clearly a negative value to being associated with a poor placement. The argument against this theory is that brands pay their agencies to be the steward for their brand in the media environment, and as such the agency should be thinking with their best interests at heart. Some would argue the same goes for publishers, who want to demonstrate value on their end by ensuring viewability and the perception of premium inventory for what they bring to the market.
At the end of the day, I still think the responsibility rests with agency buyers. They need to ensure that ads are viewable and they need to be willing to enforce this. They need to be willing to sacrifice some of their media efficiency in favor of stewardship for the brand, ensuring performance will be strong rather than focusing on the efficiency of the buy.
After all, TV buyers only have so much room to negotiate because there is finite inventory, yet they maintain clear value at a premium level in their media. In online, the inventory is almost infinite, so what keeps publishers from knocking down prices year after year?
So if you’re an agency, or you work with one for your media buying, I strongly encourage you to push on the viewability standards being adopted by the MRC and the IAB. I would say it’s inevitable and you want to be on the forefront of things, but inevitability is not much of a persuasion tactic. Look at it as doing the right thing now by choice, rather than being forced to do it later.