Transparency and Viewability: Why the Answers Aren’t So Clear

The calls for transparency in the digital advertising space have only increased in number and volume over the last three years. The trouble is no one seems to have precisely the same definition of transparency.

For some, transparency relates to viewability and an in-depth understanding of where ads are shown. For others, it refers to visibility into media costs, markups, and middleman fees. For others still, it’s about knowing exactly who is involved or subcontracted by whom across a digital campaign. But no matter how it’s defined, marketers are looking for the transparency into media buying that will help them to make better decisions.

A similar fog lingers around the term “viewability.” Does viewability refer to ads viewed by humans? Is it synonymous with transparency? Or is viewability the same as fraud?

If we’re going to take steps toward a solution for either of these industry-wide challenges, and ultimately gain the understanding that we need, then we first need to clear up some of the confusion.


In my view, transparency is more than just a concept that refers to a single aspect of advertising. Transparency and the insights it brings should relate to every single aspect of digital advertising. There should be no question regarding how much was spent on one campaign, which platforms were used to purchase media, how well they performed, or where the ads were shown.

“Transparency” should be more than just a report listing all the URLs on which an ad appeared, and how much each ad cost.

While marketers continue to gain a better understanding of programmatic advertising, there is still a fair amount of confusion around what it is, how it works — and even more confusion around areas like private marketplaces. To share additional learnings, we need to provide transparency into the entire process so marketers can see what’s working for them and why.

Without transparency into which platforms were used to purchase media, the results achieved on that platform, and the investment required to achieve those outcomes, how can marketers possibly understand what they need to do to continue to drive results?

As an industry, we need to provide end-to-end transparency across the entire marketing spectrum. Marketers need visibility into the entire approach to gain one universal truth if they’re going to continue to deliver relevant, positive consumer experiences.

Viewability Is Not Transparency

Viewability is very different from transparency. Viewability questions whether or not a digital ad ever appeared in the space within a web page that was in view by an audience. Was your ad seen by humans? Did it even have the opportunity to be seen by humans?

To put it into context, viewability is another area into which marketers need transparency.

The biggest factors contributing to viewability challenges are as follows:

  • Between 30 and 80 percent of ad impressions cannot even be measured for viewability. That’s largely because many “high impact” and custom placements like page takeovers are not standard and can’t be measured by current technology.
  • Measurement of viewability is not yet standardized. While the Media Ratings Council (MRC) has established standards for viewability, they haven’t standardized how viewability must be measured. As a result, there are 20 or so MRC-accredited measurement vendors offering different technology and different results. Results vary based on the methodology applied by the vendor.
  • Technology stacking creates layers of dysfunction. There are so many vendors involved in the delivery of a single ad impression. With so many tags and so much code, and with so few vendors making an effort to enable their tech to “speak” to other vendors’ tech, it’s a wonder ads ever appear at all. And sometimes they don’t.
  • Fraud is still a problem. Bad actors still plague digital advertising. Both sellers and buyers will use unstable technology and business standards to their advantage – and will continue to creatively find ways to do so. Since there’s a lot of money to be made on impression fraud, it will continue.

Transparency is the Path to Knowledge

We have a long way to go before we can even hope to achieve 100 percent viewability. Technology limitations with regard to measurement, and the absence of standardization across ad formats, will create challenges for the next several years. That doesn’t mean marketers should have to settle for unviewable ad placements, and it certainly doesn’t mean they should have to pay for impressions that were never seen by human eyes.

If marketers demand transparency from every vendor for their digital advertising, we’ll start to see improvements in viewability along with all other aspects. How much was spent on each channel? What tactics were used to optimize campaigns? What were the results? On which sites did the ads appear, and who engaged with them?

If technology and media companies answer the rally cry for increased transparency in the marketplace, marketers will fully understand all facets of their advertising, will be able to share relevant experiences with consumers, and drive the results they need.


Eoin Townsend has been a leader in the digital advertising industry for over 15 years. As Chief Product Officer, he oversees all product related initiatives for Collective, including product strategy, product management and product marketing. Eoin is responsible for the vision, strategy and innovation of the company’s solutions in television, display, video and mobile. Prior to Collective, he was the Chief Strategy Officer at MediaMath, where he oversaw Product Strategy and Business Development, and partnered with Product Management on the company’s go to market strategy. Prior to MediaMath, Eoin was the Senior Vice President, Partnerships, Business Development and Product Strategy for DoubleVerify. Eoin is a graduate of the University of Toronto at Mississauga – Erindale College.