Last week’s AdGear Traffic Quality Summit in Toronto brought together experts in programmatic technology and digital media in an anonymous environment where they could be honest — at times brutally so.
Viewability was one of the hottest topics discussed. Media buyers have been pushing hard for publishers to guarantee that their impressions are viewable. Publishers have pushed back, arguing the infrastructure to support those pricing models isn’t built yet, and they can’t offer the same rates if they can only charge for a fraction of their inventory.
Just last week, Ad Age reported major brands like Kraft and Kellogg have dialled back their spending, or cut off ties entirely, with publishers that won’t offer viewability guarantees backed by independent measurement.
The AdGear summit convened a panel of high-ranking media experts to discuss the issue. Marketing was asked not to identify panelists when quoting them, so they could speak more candidly.
One c-suite executive at a well-respected measurement provider said viewability growing pains are largely a problem of perception. There’s no material difference between paying based on cost-per-impression and paying on cost-per-viewable impression — an advertiser that pays a $0.50 CPM on 50% viewable inventory and an advertiser that pays a $1.00 viewable CPM on the same inventory are getting the exact same thing for the same price.
But that doesn’t mean the two options are perceived the same. The exec argued that clients don’t particularly care if they buy a viewable ad, and get a lot of non-viewable impressions along the way, but what they won’t do is pay money for a non-viewable ad. So even if they’re materially the same, vCPM looks a lot more appealing to the client.
Beyond perception though, the panelists agreed there is a real problem at the heart of the viewability debate: marketers, and to a lesser extent agencies, don’t believe they’re getting the value they’re paying for when half the ads they buy don’t show up on a viewer’s screen.
“I think instinctively, media planners have known that it’s not always going to be 100% viewable, but I think the marketers have never had the conversation because they’ve never had to,” said one of the panelists, who’s worked on both the agency and media side. She said media planners have in the past dealt with low viewability by increasing frequency, and focused on the final reach numbers. But that doesn’t fly with marketers now that viewability measurement is commonplace.
“We’ve created this problem where we’ve had to inflate the number of impressions, because that’s the name of the game. Now we want to call it viewable,” she said.
Some of the panelists claimed there’s a danger that if advertisers continue to insist on viewability — above all other metrics — they’ll end up with ads that are viewable, at the expense of being effective.
“We debate this conversation a lot internally,” said one media-side panelist. “If we throw a banner up at the top of [our site] with an expandable ad, there’s money to be made right away. But we also know the impact on that user is going to be extremely high. It’s the lifetime value of the user as opposed to the short-term win of the campaign.”
“Viewability is not a quality signal,” said the measurement provider. “Does [a high viewability rate] mean that the value of their content is great? Of course not. Does it mean that their users are better? Definitely not. It just means that the ads are there, and it is possible to see them. I think we have to disentangle this idea of quality of content and physically putting the ads up.”
Asked directly whether publishers should take a loss on non-viewable ads, the sell-side panelists argued that was a bad long-term solution. “If the goal in the next 18-24 months is to squeeze the marketplace and get more money out of pubs, it’s not going to benefit us long-term as an industry,” one media exec said. “This is an ecosystem that needs healthy pubs.”
One solution a lot of publishers are adopting is discounting non-viewable inventory, but tacking on a “premium” for guaranteeing their inventory, to effectively make up the loss. One of the panelists really didn’t like that idea. She said makes it seem like publishers think they’re going beyond the call of duty just to serve ads that can actually be seen.
Media companies will have better luck attempting to correct the perceived value of online ad impressions, she argued — they should charge higher for vCPMs, and do a much better job explaining why that’s necessary.
“Every industry has to continue to build and innovate,” she said. “We’re not going to get away from it by saying, ‘you should not be demanding 50%.’ That’s a red herring and it’s not dealing with the issue at hand.”