A Couple Footloose Views On Viewability Today

New York Times' Matt ProhaskaOK, quick show of hands: how many of you were raised in the “Footloose” era? I mean, how many of you were teenagers when that movie came out?

I was a spry 13, and one of the my favorite scenes was the Chicken standoff, where Kevin Bacon playing Ren McCormack (btw, a bit surprising that more newborn boys weren’t named Ren a few years after that movie, right, or is that just me?) proves his toughness by winning the staring contest with Chuck. It had Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” playing in the background – one of the top sports montage themes of its day – and it was a classic good-guy-wins ending.

We have another similar staring contest happening right now between sellers and buyers, and not just the annual tradition that is the national TV upfront season. Good times, good times. No, I’m referring to the current stalemate happening with some digital publishers and some advertisers around using viewability ratings in a guarantee to buy impressions.

I’ve spoken with several publishers recently who are debating internally how to handle major advertisers (let’s say some in the CPG category) wanting to buy on either comScore’s vCE or Nielsen’s OCR, not simply to tag the ads and measure how they rate, but now to pay when their ads are in view. Many of us saw buyers moving in this direction a while back, when the capabilities were being built and sold into the brands by these large research firms. And I understand the buyers’ desire to weed out ads that are never “seen” by the consumer. But asking a publisher to only get paid on ads that are “seen” by one research firm’s methodology, whether it’s comscore, Nielsen, or even newer players like Forensiq, and not counting a publisher’s methodology or independent vendor like Moat, is a tough pill to swallow and a slippery slope, in the short term.

If I’m a publisher talking to an advertiser working with, say, Nielsen, who buys a lot of TV, it might be tempting to make a defensive argument that asks how viewability works in TV and how once again, just because something can be measured, like say clicks, should that be the currency for determining inventory and audience value? Even when looking at commercial ratings, or Live +3 days, to account for DVR usage, it’s pretty apples and pears but still not a fair comparison. Imagine paying for TV GRPs only when someone has definitely sat in front of the TV for at least one, full, normal second to see the ad. However, I understand the digital buyer’s argument that s/he simply wants to buy impressions that have at least had the chance for that one second of impact.

So are digital publishers going to simply be able to raise their CPM by 30% if their average 300×250 is out of view 30% of the time? And are comscore’s & Nielsen’s methodology close enough at least to each other to be able to forecast inventory enough to determine what that projected viewability is to assign value? We don’t have ideal marketplace conditions yet, but I believe this will become a standard metric for buying, and publishers eventually will get past the short-term hit to their total yield by gradually adjusting how their ads are served and priced, to drive more trust, value, and revenue.

I’d love it if you could please let me know in the comment section below what I’m missing, where I’m out of touch, or what your own prediction is of how and when this will net out. Because the tractors are getting closer to each other, and time is starting to run out. But in the movie, there were only two tractors. In our world today, there are many publishers possibly willing to drive off the road for buyers, but there are also plenty of advertisers that don’t even have their own tractor yet.  With all this uncertainty, only one thing is clear: we all want to be Ren, even if it means winning because we got our shoelace stuck on the brake and we couldn’t jump off the tractor.

Matt Prohaska is the former Programmatic Advertising Director of The New York Times and has recently re-opened Prohaska Consulting. Look for his column on the fourth Thursday of every month.


  • Lee Byrne

    Matt – we’ve been trying to accommodate agencies that ask to transact based on viewability. Aside from the technology issues like you mention, the real challenge is that the buyers are also insisting on basing the overall performance of the campaign on metrics like CTR and CPA. In other words, they want to pay for only ads that are in-view but will take all the ‘free’ clicks and conversions that come from impressions that could not be measured or were tracked as out of view. We’ve had agencies working with on DR campaigns that have been buying from us for years tell us they want to start paying only for impressions that are in-view even though we’ve been hitting their back end numbers all along. Are they just getting caught up in the hype? We’re not a publisher either so we have the added bonus of trying to audience target impressions on our managed network and across RTB. Good times.