ComScore’s Power Play

ComScore’s memo to the ad industry: We’re not just for planning anymore.

The third-party audience-measurement stalwart, best known for providing unique-user estimates for thousands of websites, is looking to deeply embed itself in the online ad process, offering advertisers a suite a campaign management tools, safeguards and post-campaign-analysis levers to pull.

The idea is to make ComScore integral to the online ad ecosystem — and to displace some of the other vendors in the market. For example, during a presentation in New York, ComScore unveiled Validated Campaign Essentials, a tool designed to validate Web campaigns. But under the surface, it seemed clear that ComScore is looking to shove aside verification companies like DoubleVerify, view monitoring startups like RealVu, tag management vendors like Tagman and perhaps even brand-researcher firms like Dynamic Logic. The message: We can handle all of your online campaign needs this side of ad serving.

“VCE is the hardest, most innovative thing we’ve ever done,” said ComScore CEO and president Magid Abraham

Audience research, which most digital buyers use in deciding where to spend their clients’ dollars, makes up the majority of ComScore’s business. But in a few years, Abraham predicted that audience measurement will represent less than 50 percent of the company’s revenue — driven by VCE, which has been in development for two years.

That would represent a major shift in ComScore’s core business focus — a shift in how the ad community views and uses its products. But ComScore believes it has a powerful selling point in an increasingly cluttered buying process. Why use half a dozen specialty vendors when we’re experts that can address all your needs?

As for the ad-verification need, ComScore contends it has a superior product compared to other players in the segment. The company acquired AdExpose last August. It represents the backbone of the VCE product, which is designed to help buyers and marketers determine which portions of the ads in their online campaigns are actually viewable and which are not.

Running ads that nobody can see is a serious problem for the industry, as Abraham laid out in a presentation in New York on Wednesday. According to a recent study ComScore conducted with 12 major brands, including Kraft, Ford and Kellogg’s, on average 31 percent of the ads these brands ran were not viewable. Plus, 14 of the 18 campaigns studied saw brands ending up on sites with inappropriate content.

And those brands were mostly running ads on what would be considered well-vetted, trustworthy publishers, said Abraham. The problem is even worse for brands running ads via ad networks and exchanges, which often feature sites loaded with never-to-be-seen ads. In an interview later in the day, Abraham told Digiday that some campaigns saw the number of viewable impressions fall well below 50 percent, and in a few cases, as to as low as 10 percent.

Why does such a glaring problem persist? The price of ads is distorted by non-visible ad impressions, he said. “But the dynamics of the marketplace provide a huge incentive to stuff pages with ads,” he said. “There’s been a race to the bottom.”

ComScore says its tools will allow advertisers to receive real-time alerts when their online campaigns are running afoul of their original parameters, such as running on dicey sites or below the fold. Brands can even set up block lists to prevent unwanted ad adjacencies. So if lots of brands start employing VCE, should publishers be in a panic?

“We think this can actually help publishers do better,” said Abraham, who added that after initially targeting advertisers, he plans to pitch VCE to big publishers. He explained that even if a publisher finds that half of its impressions are non-viewable, ComScore’s tools can help that publisher eliminate the need to sell remnant inventory, while elevating the price of its top inventory. At least, that’s how the theory goes.

Besides focusing on validating campaigns, VCE is designed to help brands utilize a single, universal tag (the proliferation of tags is a big pain point among brands). The company also wants to eventually help brands better optimize campaigns by factoring in such metrics as brand lift into its optimization tools. That might threaten companies like Dynamic Logic, which make their living by conducting brand-impact studies for advertisers. But it would, in Abraham’s estimates, help eliminate grading brand campaigns using clicks — which, in his eyes, is a major deterrent for the industry. “We are seeing clicks increasingly gamed in a race to get credit,” he said.

Much of what ComScore is planning jibes nicely with Making Measurement Make Sense, an uber-industry movement focused on creating a standard around viewable ad impressions as well as a currently buying currency.

While Abraham insisted that ComScore isn’t just using VCE as a way to comply with MMMS, he did emphasize a need for the industry to embrace a common currency, namely the GRP — or in this case, the validated GRP, i.e., VGRP. He cited a common scenario in the business, where a digital planner might talk about a plan that delivers 20 million impressions.

“That sounds like an impressive number,” said Abraham. “But TV buyers rarely talk about how many impressions a plan delivers. They talk in GRPs.” A plan that delivers 20 million impressions may actually translate to as few as seven GRPs, Abraham added.

“The GRP doesn’t solve all of our problems,” he said. “But it does get us closer to a common language.”

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