Trees Falling in the Forest…Where the iFrames are Nesting

Metrics (and acronyms) heat up in online due to desire to equate to television

An initiative first announced by industry trade groups IAB/AAAAs and the ANA in conjunction with the MRC (Media Ratings Council), MediaLink and Bain Consulting  called 3Ms (Making Measurement Make Sense) is now moving to shift the digital media space into a wholly new definition of what is an ad.  While it might seem that an ad is an ad, in the digital ad space, which is “machine driven” (ie, a lot of computers involved), the question of whether an ad exists if it is not seen is what is at stake. New data released by comScore – compiled from studies of 18 campaigns (of over 2 billion impressions placed on over 400,000 sites) which was done in conjunction with 3Ms – shows that up to 31% of impressions served were never viewed. (Download their report at:

So how can an unseen ad be an ad?  It all goes back to 2004, when the definition of an impression was developed by the IAB.  “There were 5 major attempts before I joined the IAB and lots of marketers and agencies involved and we could never agree,” says Greg Stuart, chairman of the IAB from 2001 – 2007, and now chairman of the MMA. “We realized this was a machine issue and we worked with the MRC and DoubleClick.  We got the biggest ad servers – which were showing huge discrepancies in their ad counts due to different definitions – to agree to one. This required millions of dollars from some of the largest media companies which had to re-work their technology but at least the ad servers had one definition and showed similar counts on campaigns.” Did the notion of “viewability” ever come up?  “No,” says Stuart, but then he also notes it was a different world technologically plus “pages started to stretch and publishers loaded more ads on the page.”

The 2004 definition of an online ad impression was based on ads technically loading onto a page of content. While the ad may load, the human being may never see it as pages can be quite long and the ads may appear outside of the immediately viewable area of the screen, something which ad servers are blind to. The tools were not able to detect whether someone had indeed scrolled down the page and thus made the ad viewable.  Also, ad servers count computer browser activity, not exposure to human beings, which is the realm of panel based companies like comScore and Nielsen. The current working definition is that the ad must be at least 50% viewable for 1 second.

Why change the definition now?  Says IAB SVP Research, Analytics and Measurement Sherrill Mane who herded all the cats involved in this initiative:  “We want to put display ad units on an equal footing with other media which is based on opportunity to see. The adoption of viewable impressions will eliminate the confusion around what the technology does and does not do and give the media community comfort and security for brand advertisers to move forward.”

To the issue of brand advertisers, Kellogg’s, Allstate, Ford, Chrysler, HTC, Sprint, KRAFT, General Mills, Discover, Kimberly Clark and eTrade all put their names on and contributed campaigns to the comScore Validated Campaign Essential report released March 26th.

At first glance the movement from a definition of an ad as one that technically loads to one that is actually viewed sounds like a boon for advertisers but a challenge for publishers, after all, some stand to get a chunk of their inventory wacked out. But comScore’s tool can be used to help publishers more effectively understand the valuation of inventory, says Sherrill Mane.  “Publishers will have to understand how to optimize the experience for consumer and optimize their inventory. As long as we are in the business of serving ads without thinking through the notion of viewability we are not creating the best experience for the user and making the content better.  We now have the knowledge to do this.  This is the first step towards properly segmenting inventory. All units are not created equal.”

Typically top of page placements command highest prices say agency sources, but the research shows that in many cases, these are overlooked in favor of in-content or below-the-fold placements – it all depends on the type of content and how people consume it and what is surprising is how little of this publishers do know and act upon. As an example, Linda Abraham, CMO of comScore, noted at a presentation March 26thheld in conjunction with the ARF Re:Think Conference, that recipe sites actually have higher viewability rates of ads below-the-fold than top of page placements and that their tool “is able to unearth the gold below the fold.” Says the IAB’s Mane: “below the fold is a mythical construct.” Yaakov Kimelfeld, Ph.D., SVP, Digital Research and Analytics Director at MediaVest confirmed what comScore’s research showed and noted that his agency sought out these placements on some sites as they typically were lower priced but had great impact for campaigns. “The publishers had premium inventory and they don’t know about it.”

Indeed, publishers who were willing to go on record – some say they are not yet prepared for comment – see this as a good thing.  Dan Murphy, SVP Interactive Research & Analytics at Univision Interactive Media, says that his company has their logs audited by the MRC and “we do not believe we are going to get hit as hard as long tail sites,” and that “anything that gets us to transparency and accountability is good.” Beth Lawrence, EVP Ad Sales for the Weather Channel shares Murphy’s view. “It should not impact us much. We know how people view our content and we place the ads accordingly.” Beth-Ann Eason, SVP/GM, Epicurious,, Gourmet Live at Conde Nast says “Such metrics would support in a measurable way what we already know – that running display on premium sites is worth the premium charged over ad networks… the Conde sales group is educating the market that the measure of an impression should be ad awareness and recall – not clicks.”

Some agency executives contacted are firmly in support of the initiative. John Montgomery, GroupM Interaction COO says “verification is so important and we have to learn to speak the same language with online and offline if we want to move packaged goods business to interactive. We’ve got to start with the same definition.”  David Cohen, Chief Media Officer of Universal McCann and Chair of the AAAAs interactive media council, is similarly favorable about the move to viewable.  “This is the most realistic view of internet ads that will move the business. The outcome will have implications on every part of the industry. This is about the fact that now we know more about how to prepare and architect a property for maximum viewability – not another kind of effort that will add to the friction. It’s a new currency that we can organize around.”

Other agency execs are proceeding with caution. Michael Hayes, President, Initiative Digital Worldwide sees this as bad for publishers and posing operational challenges for agencies. “The current way we serve, track and reconcile plus the billing is based on IAB standards set up years ago. We are going to have to completely change to adjust [to viewable].  The two main companies that control more than 80% of the ad serving market do not measure this way,” he says referring to Google’s DoubleClick and Microsoft’s Atlas ad serving products which tie into agency billing systems. “This is not going to be easy to operationalize. We don’t use comScore or Nielsen to pay any invoice, why pick them for this initiative?” He notes that the industry is going to end up with two methodologies (standard definition and viewable) and “these do not mix well. Plus the publishers have to agree to it. Publishers already know what their valuable inventory is.” He commends sites like ESPN for their inventory management and placement: “They actually sell out.” He also sees an initiative like this as not necessary in light of what an agency can do:  “if you are doing your job well, you are optimizing the media. The ad placement not viewed will get eliminated due to the sheer nature of its performance.”

To the question of the ad serving connection or lack thereof, Mane of the IAB says that ad servers are involved with the initiative through the MRC and the industry should expect developments in the near future. Executives that lead the Google DoubleClick division were contacted for this article but declined to comment (as of when an excerpt of this was published in Ad Age 4/9/12). But as of 4/18, Google announced their own online GRP tool and their stake in the viewables game:  Google to Support ‘Viewable Impressions’ and Online GRPs. They are calling their version of a GRP an “Active GRP.”

Ari Paparo, SVP Product Management of real time advertising platform Appnexus (and former EVP Product leadership at Nielsen) notes additional industry challenges of enacting a total change of ad accounting:   “We, along with most everyone else in the industry, would be happy to adopt a viewable impression standard, provided there was a definition for what that is exactly, it reliably worked across browsers and operating systems and it was not exclusively the intellectual property of a measurement company or technology vendor.”

The comScore data would seem to have most impact on networks and exchanges that indeed trade in “long tail inventory” which showed the lowest rates of viewability in the comScore test (the comScore sites that were not in the top 500 in terms of reach had average viewability rates of 61% vs. 77% for those in the top 50, according to the comScore study).  Qasim Saifee, General Manager of the OpenX Market (an ad exchange) says he does not see the industry moving fully towards viewable ads as “after all, you cannot predict viewability before an ad is served. And it’s not clear yet whether you can determine viewability with certainty.”

The certainty issue with viewability has to do with what are called “iFrames” and the challenge they pose for counting.  Many ads are now bought and sold through networks and exchanges and when they are served they are not coming from the publisher’s domain (for example, These ads are put into what is called a “nested,” “cross domain” or “unfriendly” iFrame and can be passed through multiple networks or exchanges before they ultimately appear on a page of content. “The dirty little secret on viewability is the issue of cross-domain iFrames and the challenge they pose for viewability measurement,” says Josh Chasin, Chief Research Officer of comScore.  “We believe that we are the only ones to have solved this problem.  Our data shows that 61% of impressions are in cross-domain iFrames, and that most of the viewability measurement solutions cannot see into them.”  The ultimate output of their Campaign Essentials product is a vGRP (or validated Gross Ratings Point) which has basically eliminated not just non viewable ads, but ads that do not fit the target audiences or the right geography, ads served on inappropriate content and fraudulent ads (ads served to non-humans like spiders and bots).

comScore is not the only vendor offering tools to account for “viewable ads.” Steve Hasker, President, Media Products and Advertiser Solutions at Nielsen says that viewability has been built into their Online Campaign Ratings tool (OCR) but he believes viewability is of a lower priority to most advertisers than the issue of being able to tell what percent of impressions actually reached the intended target. They have an online version of a GRP tool that they refer to as an eGRP or effective GRP.  Other companies that offer viewability include Say Media and their Clean Campaign product, Collective through their AMP ad serving platform and RealVu, a company with a stated mission of having “viewable impressions replace CPMs as an industry standard.” Analytics company Adometry announced in March that they could do attribution modeling based on viewed rather than served ads. Joe Apprendi, CEO of Collective reports that “less than ½ of one percent of all IOs in their system currently specify ‘viewable’” but with “lots of support and industry leadership this is going to change in the next 12 months. We can finally qualify, value and change our optimization techniques for proper allocations.”

Jon Gibs, a 10-year Nielsen veteran who is now SVP of Digital Research for NBC Uni’s digital properties, believes as does Nielsen’s Hasker that the issue of appending demography to the counting is the real breakthrough and is positive about its prospects for publishers where he is working on a company POV. “In the long term it will inform how people use the web at various levels. It gives us a new way of looking at our business strategy and ad placements.”

The entire push to viewable is acknowledged by agency execs like Cohen and Montgomery and IAB leaders like Mane as a way to put interactive on an equal footing with television with its “opportunity to see” principle.   “It will help us incorporate more easily into media mix modeling,” says Montgomery, which is done extensively in categories like packaged goods for media allocation. They both desire to eventually get to cross platform GRPs – which are the currency of TV.

But Montgomery and other interactive execs also desire online metrics to go deeper than a television reach paradigm.  Gibs of NBC Universal notes that reach is a great metric for the world of three network television but in the reality of media fragmentation, “now even some of the smaller cable networks talk in impressions rather than GRPs.”

Montgomery wants viewable impressions but also pushes for clients to use engagement metrics distinct to the internet. He and others from agencies note increased reliance on metrics provided by a company called Moat that daily scrapes media creative from the web which they post onto a public web site (see where you can search by brand and see creatives and where they are running).  When Moat tags are added to their own creative, agencies get a richer but standardized set of interaction metrics back into their own systems.  Kimelfeld of MediaVest, who is also a Moat user, sees viewable as “kind of a step back but good to make the waters less murky for brands.” What would he like to see?  Not merely the opportunity to see but “What kind of impact an ad actually had on a person.”