‘Viewable Ads’ and Brand Dollars: We’ve Seen This Movie Before

“Data Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today’s column is written by Tom Shields, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Yieldex, an analytics tools provider for sell-side, yield optimization.

Ever since my March column addressing viewable impressions, I’ve been tagged as “that anti-viewable impressions guy.” This misses the point. I’m not against viewable impressions. That’s like being against vegetables – they’re probably good for you. What I am against is the idea that if we can just move the standard to viewable impressions, we’ll unlock the flood of brand advertising dollars that are too afraid to move to online.  Thing is, we’ve seen this movie at least twice before.

Here’s what I mean:

Back in the mid to late ’90s, some advertisers started to realize that many impressions and clicks were being created by robots and spiders deployed by huge companies like Excite, Infoseek and Lycos. Industry experts predicted that if we could just make sure every impression was seen by a human, we’d get those brand dollars. Publishers worried that their impression counts and revenues would drop precipitously. With time and effort the industry adopted some standards that mostly solved the problem, but it didn’t unleash the flood of ad dollars.

Then in the early 2000’s, third-party ad servers really started to take off, and discrepancies began to arise. Advertisers started to insist on paying according to their numbers, not the publisher’s counts.  Again, industry experts predicted that using advertiser numbers would unleash brand dollars.  Again, publishers agonized over losing impressions and revenue. Now, the majority of premium ad buys are paid on third-party ad server numbers, and the money flood hasn’t materialized.

Here we are again.  Everyone knows measuring viewability — despite its obvious flaws — is better than just measuring delivery. Industry groups are pushing for it, because it wins elections as a small but marketable success. Publishers are dragging their feet because of the cost to deploy, and potential impact on revenue. Digital agencies see it as a bright shiny object they can use to prove they “get” digital to their clients. For companies in the space, it’s essential to support it – allowing clients to forecast viewability. But in the end, it won’t solve the real problems of brand advertisers online, so it’s more of a distraction than a panacea.

As I stated before, the real challenges we need to solve are laid out in the other four principles of Making Measurement Make Sense: rationalizing measurement across media, understanding online’s contribution to brand building, and generally making it easier to spend big budgets online and get ROI that makes sense. Let’s focus our efforts on these challenges, so we can grow the market to $200 billion for everyone.

Follow Tom Shields (@tshields), Yieldex (@yieldex) and AdExchanger.com (@adexchanger.com) on Twitter.


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  1. Thanks, Tom.

    As always, a clear headed and reasonable reply to an industry issue. I’ve not heard viewable impressions put forward as the key to unlocking brand spend yet. The main problem I’ve heard it being heralded as solving is the ever decreasing CPMs in display. While it is true that CPMs are racing to the bottom due to logarithmic increases in supply paired with linear growth in spend, and creating some scarcity and increased value by only billing for ads that are seen could drive CPMs up, I remain unconvinced that advertisers and agencies would be willing to pay enough more to offset the decrease in total inventory. The issue here is that the initiative could cause a huge short term dip in total online revenue.

    An individual publisher that goes live with a viewable impressions offer could see their inventory drop 40% but not be able to command the corresponding 66% uplift in CPM in the market place. This could have a serious impact on their bottom line. We’ve not seen a willingness from the buy side to adjust rates when we’ve made these changes in the past — it’s always the publisher that suffers in the end.

    There is also the question of who measures and reports these numbers. I’m sure companies like ComScore and Maxifier, among others, would love to be the arbiter of viewable impressions. However, the pandora’s box of discrepancies would really be opened with these new metrics. If an ad requires:

    – that it has come into view
    – for 1 second
    – and was viewed by a human (not a bot)

    there is the potential for a litany of discrepancies ranging from the robot blacklist itself, to the system that registers viewability.

    While I am all in favour of driving more value for advertisers, creating scarcity, and accelerating the growth of digital, I’m unsure if this is the BEST way to do it. The skeptic in me thinks that the initiative is being driven by those that want to own the metric, rather than those with the industry’s best interests in mind.

  2. James Coulson

    Hi Tom
    To be honest its the first time I’ve heard viewable impressions being a major block to brand spend in display. If the whole market moved to viewable impressions it probably wouldnt have much affect on overall spend levels or publisher revenues but it would be a major step to truly understand the value of display. Attribution models will be always be distorted if you are including impressions that are never seen.

  3. Wayne Blodwell

    Hi Tom.

    The $200bn amount gets banded about a lot within the industry, but have we actually sat down and thought which advertisers it comes from (as in, there are 75% of global marketing spend) and how we get them to spend online? Particularly where the advertiser makes most of it’s revenue through offline stores/products?

    I agree in that the viewable impressions isn’t the ‘be all and end all’, but it’s a step in the right direction for marketers to understand the role of display (and therefore invest more into it on top of paid search/affiliates).

    Very well written article – thank you for sharing.

  4. Good commentary, Tom. Frankly, on the fence on this topic. I can’t blame the industry – or certain participants – from seeking a more ‘pure’ advertising environment. Historically, magazines, outdoor media, and television have sold their advertising on total circulation, total automobiles passing, and total Nielsen audience, respectively – with no attempt to really define the counts truly seeing each ad. Digital may have the tools to do it, but one could argue the sheer budgets large brand advertisers pay for television would be motivating some of them to at least ask: “Is there a way to measure how many people DVR your show and skip through our ads?” As much as I enjoy the quant side of our space, I firmly believe the big dollars of TV won’t flow until digital can re-create the same level of content, captive watching, and time to present high-quality, engaging 30-second advertising shown to drive consumer attitudes. Digital offers some of that, but today’s ADD culture may not have the time or attention for that.

  5. As an industry, we keep shooting our toes off by driving continually more stringent impression definitions. Our current impression standards are stricter than those used by any other media in the history of media. None of this has led to significant adoption by offline brand spenders – and every time that we reduce supply with these new standards – we make *managing* media buying and selling more expensive. When we already cost the clients 10-15x as much in media management cost than traditional, and similarly as much to the publisher to manage selling of online media (compared to traditional) with almost a 100% revenue drop between traditional and digital.

    Premium Ad Inventory is in short supply, while poor quality ad inventory is (according to some) of infinite supply. Moving to viewable impressions will only reduce the amount of premium inventory further – and move to a model where once again, Online sets itself to a higher standard than traditional media “just because we can”. While for the second decade the industry refuses to standardize GRP and TRP buying and selling – which could actually have an impact on Brand Advertiser Adoption.

    To me, there are MUCH bigger battles to fight than viewable impressions. But fine – let’s reduce the amount of premium display inventory once more, and see what happens. If we don’t broadly adopt more automated buying and selling mechanisms, this industry isn’t going to see brand adoption – just because of the cost of managing the buying of our media.

    I’m kind of surprised that DoubleClick hasn’t just rolled viewable impressions out on DFP and DFA, and that competing platforms don’t do the same. It isn’t hard, and has been done by various systems for many years. Just not as a standard feature. I can’t imagine we’re far away from that happening.

  6. @Matt O’Neill “The skeptic in me thinks that the initiative is being driven by those that want to own the metric, rather than those with the industry’s best interests in mind.” Agreed!

    @James Coulson: “Attribution models will be always be distorted if you are including impressions that are never seen.” Yes, but if you are linking attribution back to impressions, then the ones that aren’t seen will naturally fall away in the optimization process. So why bother with the intermediate step?

    @Eric Picard: DoubleClick has already announced viewable impressions in Q1 2013, so it’s coming. And agree that there are MUCH bigger battles to fight – my point exactly!

    @Wayne Blodwell, @John Shomaker: Great comments – thanks!

  7. @James Coulson: “Attribution models will be always be distorted if you are including impressions that are never seen.” – Well, James, not if you have a good one.

    Tom’s response is absolutely correct: “Yes, but if you are linking attribution back to impressions, then the ones that aren’t seen will naturally fall away in the optimization process.”

    And just because an ad was in view for a second, a minute, or ten minutes doesn’t mean it deserves any credit either…good attribution systems determine impactful conversions.