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According to a 2017 study by Kantar Millward Brown titled “Getting Media Right”, which surveyed 330 leaders from advertisers, agencies and media companies worldwide, channels that can be easily measured or demonstrate ROI (63%) ranked third as the most influential factor when it came to media budget allocation.

Viewability, however, one of the metrics integral to media buying and measuring the effectiveness of an ad on various channels, was listed in the study as the top tactical challenge marketers encounter in the media and digital space.

To tackle the issue of viewability and to ensure effective campaign optimisation, the study advised companies to consider crucial questions such as whether consumers are seeing the ad, are they targeting the right audience, and if their ads are placed in the right place. While the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has set a global industry standard for viewability, brands and agencies have also decided to take it upon themselves to be more invested in digital media by unveiling their own viewability standards.

An article in Adweek said that IBM started requiring that its ads meet two new guidelines that align with GroupM’s recently revamped metrics: 100% of display ads must be in view for one second. Moreover, 100% of a video must be in view for 50% of its duration with sound.

Meanwhile, Shell and Hewlett-Packard (HP) also created their own viewability metrics to optimise media spend. For Shell, 50% of both the display ad and video has to be seen for at least five seconds. HP declared that 100% of a display ad has to be in view for five seconds, while 100% of a video ad has to be in view for half the video’s length.

While the lack of an overall unified measurement standard for viewability being adopted by all brands and media agencies undoubtedly causes a problem for all, HP defended its move saying it wanted ad buys to go beyond the Media Rating Council (MRC) standard.

“We’re advocating for higher standards in reporting metrics, resulting in more transparency and security in ad buys to ensure the brand is reaching only target audiences and making meaningful and lasting connections,” Todd Martin, director of digital and media marketing for Asia Pacific and Japan at HP, said. He added that while the MRC standard was a great leap in understanding viewability, it wasn’t going “far enough” for HP.

For HP, the current standard did not achieve the role of advertising to drive awareness, consideration, and ultimately, a purchase. Moreover, HP’s audit found that nearly half the impressions it was paying for did not meet that standard. Martin added that according to the current industry standard, a display ad impression is considered viewable if half the pixels are displayed for one second.

That’s insufficient to have an impact on the audience. We did an audit and determined that close to half the impressions we were paying for didn’t even meet that standard. For video ads, it’s even worse – a video ad is considered a viewable impression if half the pixels are displayed for two seconds,” he said.

Moreover, the vast majority of what marketers pay for isn’t ever seen by the intended audience, he explained. “More marketers would certainly be motivated to address the issue, but many aren’t aware of the extent of the problem or don’t fully understand it," he said, adding:

There’s a growing conversation in the industry, but there’s not yet a tremendous sense of urgency.

“Viewability is a key issue globally and definitely across Southeast Asia. Everyone should have moved to viewable impressions rather than served impressions by now, but we know that many advertisers are still judging the effectiveness of their campaigns by using metrics such as click-through rates and cost per thousand,” he said.

Defending HP’s internal standards, he said the brand currently sets metrics that it thinks are a more common sense standard for what people need to see in order for content to communicate effectively. Moreover, having its own standards and metrics for viewability, invalid traffic and target audience delivery gives the brand a consistent view of how its campaigns are performing across the region.

He added that to achieve this higher standard, HP will no doubt need support across the supply chain, and especially programmatic buying platforms (DSPs), so it can transact and optimise to these signals.

The truth about measurement

While it is important to define the viewability metrics by the environment the ad serves within, then implement independent third party tracking such as MOAT or Integral Ad Science (IAS) to track viewability, getting companies to share their pool of data is not easy. According to Gautham Maediratta, head of programmatic for Asia Pacific at Mindshare, the current measurement of duration and percentage of pixels in view is a holistic method as it factors in metrics for quality of placement and user-attention.

He added the issue of viewability was one which was still hush hush, given there aren’t any publicly available reports that offer an industry level view. “Apart from a viewability report by the IAB Singapore there aren’t any publicly available reports that offer an industry level view. As a result, clients can benchmark against the industry, but not against competitors,” he said.

According to IAB’s viewability report titled “First Look: Display Advertising”, which measured more than 424 million impressions across Asia Pacific between August and October 2016, viewability rates in Southeast Asia are almost the same as the US. The report indicated the average viewability rate in Southeast Asia is 53%, deviating less than 4% when compared with data provided by comScore, IAS and MOAT.

Simon Brockman, Twitter’s head of global agencies for Asia Pacific, added viewability should be measured by the percentage of the ad in view and the duration. However, it is a standardised measurement across all digital platforms and doesn’t currently account for the different environments in which the ad is served.

For example, on social media, if a user chooses to stop scrolling and watch an ad, versus being forced to watch a piece of an ad to carry on watching a video, it would result in different impacts. So, to apply the same viewability metrics to both would be ineffective.

“Advertisers and agencies are increasingly taking into consideration the user experience as it relates to viewability, however, an industry standard based on the ad serving environment has not yet been defined,” he said. However, Brockman remained of the view the MRC standards remain the most consistent method of measuring viewability of static (display) and video-based digital ad formats.

Meanwhile, Simon Talvard-Balland, head of digital solutions at Reprise APAC, simply said the team at Mediabrands works on a multilayered approach to viewability. First, it implements a blacklist ensuring quality inventory and then proceeds to use DSP controls to set its benchmarks. This is topped up with third party verification partners such as IAS or DoubleClick Active View.

Marketers' view of viewability

Jonathan Wan, marketing manager for the Asia Oceania region at Japan Airlines (JAL), said the current viewability metric for a display ad set by IAB, whereby 50% of the display ad is in view for at least one second, was insufficient. This is because the metric doesn’t equate to a user actually viewing the ad.

“In our opinion, a more accurate viewability measurement should be engagements,” he said. This could be, for instance, on a desktop, if a mouse hovers and clicks on the ad. That would indicate a user has at least acknowledged the ad. And while the viewability measurement helps to optimise media buying efficiency, he doesn’t think it accurately indicates campaign performance or results, as the metrics should reflect the campaign objectives.

Viewability, as such, is a limited measurement on campaign success because an ad view doesn’t equate to an action taken or uplift in brand affinity. Wan and the JAL team measure campaign success through business-focused data such as passenger numbers for sales campaigns, surveys and net promoter scores for brand campaigns. Also weighing in on the conversation is Sujay Wasan, VP and CMO for Asia Pacific at Procter & Gamble (P&G), who said that setting a common standard for digital advertising is “foundational”.

“Until we adopt one shared standard, the industry cannot conduct business transparently and comparatively across all platforms,” he said. He added the MRC viewability standard is the equivalent for digital media, which is not yet widely adopted because of the speed at which new technology is developed.

As such, companies are under the impression that every new platform requires a unique viewability metric. While there are differences across platforms, he said it all boils down to two factors: with the first being the human mind registers an image into memory at 0.25 seconds. Second, the differences across platforms do not warrant the complexity and tremendous resources spent debating these differences.

“There are legitimate reasons for wantindifferent viewability standards across digital platforms. We would rather spend time working on better advertising than debating viewability standards,” he said. A critical capability to level the playing field, according to Wasan, is to have accredited, third-party verification. On a global level, P&G expects every media supplier to adopt MRC accredited third-party verification to ensure it is getting the viewability, audience, reach and frequency it pays for.

The company has been proactive in taking a stand against ineffective ad spends in the digital space. Last year, it slashed digital ad spend due to ads being served to bots as opposed to human beings, as well as the placement of ads not facilitating the equity of brands.

P&G’s chief financial officer Jon Moeller said during an investor call this year that efforts such as reducing non-viewable ads have enabled P&G to eliminate waste and reduce losses, while concurrently increasing the number of consumers it is connecting with by 10%.

This is part one of a two-part feature on the issues surrounding viewability. The article was first published in the March print edition of Marketing magazine.