Viewability's elephant in the room: Will advertisers pay more?

Advertisers have started loudly proclaiming that will no longer stand for anything less than 100 percent viewability when purchasing ads. And while publishers agree that this is a necessary development for the digital media industry, there’s a looming sticking point when it comes to how it will affect pricing.

Publishers want advertisers to pay more for viewable ads, while advertisers think it’s unfair to be upsold on ads that performed their intended duty of reaching online consumers. Sure there are disputes over standardization, but there’s serious tension when it comes to pricing.

“An ad that’s not seen is not worth less, it’s worth zero. Zero,” Ari Bluman, GroupM’s chief digital investment officer, emphatically told a crowd of digital media executives on Tuesday morning at an event hosted by ad tech firm Integral Ad Science. “None of our agencies are allowed to make any exceptions.”

His stance was echoed by the two other panel members — American Express global media manager Rachel Herskovitz and Carol Chung, svp of media technology at DigitasLBi — both of whom expressed similar “zero tolerance” policies when it comes to paying for unviewable ads.

Their positions — that it’s absurd for a brand or agency to pay for an ad that has no possibility of reaching a consumer — was hard to refute.

Many publishers agreed with their position, but the disagreement stemmed from how to determine ad value now that the industry is intent on remedying viewability issues. Publishers, such as Jaclyn Stewart and John DeSantis from Condé Nast, argued that low viewability rates have long been factored into pricing, and that a move to 100 percent viewability should be met with a corresponding increase in value. Advertisers refusing to pay more amounts to forcing publishers into a retroactive “make good” on previous ad performance.

“Cleaning up inventory, ensuring greater viewability, is good for the industry,” Brian Fitzgerald, president of Evolve Media, told Digiday later. (Fitzgerald did not attend the event.) “That said, expecting publishers to deliver 100 percent viewability or to do so without raising CPMs is both unrealistic and disingenuous. For years, agencies have pushed CPMs down, all the while knowing that a high percentage of inventory sold was below the fold and out of view.”

Unstoppable force meet immovable object.

Herskowitz acknowledged that complete viewability is currently unattainable, but said AmEx will be drawing a hard line when asked to pay a premium for viewability.

“We should not pay more for something that’s seen,” Herskovitz said.

She even went as far to denounce the Media Rating Council’s (MRC) viewability standards as not strict enough, saying they were “the lowest common denominator.”

“I don’t agree with the MRC’s standards,” Herskovitz said. “Its definitions of viewability don’t make sense. They’re not good enough. It’s about being viewed, not served.”

The MRC defines a desktop display ad as viewable if half of its pixels are in view for at least one second, and two seconds for video ads. Adding to the complexity was Chung’s assertion that some ads with low viewability actually perform well for advertisers.

“I’ve never not mentioned rate increases,” Bluman said when asked how higher viewability will affect pricing. “If you can get me a viewable ad that performs and I can verify that, we want that. And I believe supply and demand will take over.”

For some publishers, this seems the preferred compromise.

“For as long as there are some advertisers buying without a viewability condition, some advertisers buying with a standard viewability condition and some advertisers buying on a premium viewability condition, the publisher has to have different pricing for each scenario,” Joe Luna, director of sales planning at foxnews.com, told Digiday.

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