Marketers should be asking publishers to ensure they can demonstrate viewability

By Alex Tait. Originally published in The Drum.

Of late I’ve started feeling like a veteran of digital, seeing how cycles of self-regulation and industry standards have started repeating themselves. It’s a pattern that helps you anticipate future solutions to emerging similar issues.

One of my first roles after university was in the e-commerce team at one of the largest multi-channel retailers. Looking back, we were quite pioneering in many aspects of marketing and e-commerce.

Our affiliate programme created quite a stir in the affiliate industry by being what I think was the first big brand to stop brand bidding, ie paying, users for referring sales that we thought we’d get anyhow, either through natural search or our own PPC activity. It was a significant cost saving and heralded the beginning of a move from what some commentators called the ‘Wild West’ to a mature business model that ensured affiliates were a must-have channel in their media mix for any direct response advertiser.

This involved the governance of the affiliate landscape and supporting trade bodies, alongside savvy advertisers, eliminating fraudulent websites. I remember specific examples, including finding an affiliate website with one letter different which was a mirror of our own site only with a misspelled URL. We also took steps to penalise and remove those that transgressed the terms of our programme, which was set up shortly afterwards.

The industry efforts around the e-privacy directive about five years ago also reminded me of this. Essentially, as anyone involved in digital advertising at the time will remember, this was about convincing regulators the industry could self-regulate and that the ecosystem could be trusted to behave responsibly with user and advertiser data. Given the evolution in programmatic since then and the wider debates around data use, for example, the issue is far from settled. Industry debates around self-regulation provided evidence of just how difficult it could be to unite a fragmented ecosystem. The trade bodies did a great job on this, but it took strong leadership and tenacity to push it forward across a diverse set of members.

An ongoing mainstream debate that needs similar support and traction in the UK in my opinion is around ad verification. As a reader of The Drum you’ll in all likelihood be pretty familiar with it – essentially how you ensure your digital ads are seen and that you get what you pay for: that they are seen in the right environment (brand safety), by humans (ad fraud), and at all (viewability).

When the industry standards for ‘viewability’ first came out, I wrote in the trade press that I saw them as setting the bar low, so I won’t repeat in detail the argument. However, for anyone who thinks carefully about this without a vested interest, the industry standard of having half an ad seen, potentially without the logo or key message, for one second is obviously not an optimal ad buy or ‘opportunity to see’ compared with other media. As Unilever has with Group M, advertisers can and will work to their own standards. However, as we’ve both also said previously, I think there is a strong rationale for the industry to work together for a higher standard to raise the credibility of digital ad spend even further.

There is also an overarching issue on ad verification that I’d like to address here that I presented at ABC Interaction last month and that doesn’t seem to have been covered much in the trade press: the fact that it is not possible to track viewability on some media owners at all in the UK. Just looking at display, several of the most high-profile media owners as well as quite a significant number of the medium and smaller media players have yet to enable this capability.

Think ahead just a few years and there will, of course, be significant further innovation and formats needing to be brought into the fold of industry standards, and the standards themselves will need to evolve. My call is for all media owners to work proactively with the industry on standards and verification companies to ensure all their inventory is verifiable. That they accept advertiser tags as well as having VPAID and VAST enhanced capability. As marketers, we too should be aware of the issues and should be asking publishers to ensure they can demonstrate viewability.

I’ll venture what I think is a fairly safe prediction. That most advertisers will increasingly think it ‘the new normal’ to be asking for all their inventory to be ad verified over the next few years. Those media owners that allow this will have more credibility and sell more inventory in the long run. There will undoubtedly be individual short-term exceptions from media owners that have excess demand, but in the long run the net effect will surely be more ad spend going into verifiable formats and sites.

With the wide ranging disruption to many publisher revenue streams there would seem to be a great opportunity to get ahead of the competition by ensuring sites are optimised to maximise viewability as well as enabling the tracking of course for verification.