P&G's Pritchard is Half-Right. Standards Are Only a Start

(Previously published on AdAge)

By Rodger Wells

Marc Pritchard’s call at the IAB Leadership conference to hold digital advertising accountable is long overdue, brave and heard. It is a great start, but only a partial solution.  Without a broader view this path could lead to a less efficient and more dangerous ecosystem.

I agree with the Chief Brand Officer of P&G. Enforcement of MRC viewability standard, campaign verification by MRC accredited third parties, and transparency in agency contracts is a must. Having a self-regulatory organization, TAG in this case, is critical if their authority is to be respected. The rules, developed by TAG, the MRC and the IAB are all beneficial. Yet, theyhave often been ignored because these organizations hold no enforcement authority.  Both publishers and advertisers have skirted the standards to complete a campaign or hit a target. This needs to stop.

what is most critical to an advertiser is ROI. This is the promise of digital advertising in the first place. The clear ability to measure the efficacy of spend is what makes digital special - in theory.  However, if a brand spends $1 billion on viewable ads, and consumers never engage, are they doing much better than spending it on non-viewable inventory or fraud?

Two seconds of viewability is how long it takes for someone to scroll past on a page or find the “close” button. It’s hard to believe that a couple of seconds produces consumer recall of the brand or message? Measuring minimum viewability may demonstrate an ad was shown but not that it mattered.

Premium publishers can help, a little

Digital Content Next (DCN) Chief Jason Kint says his group of premium publishers have the answer to Pritchard’s requirements: Place ads on his member companies’ high quality, fraud-free pages and video. This solution has merit, albeit greatly biased toward the 82 or so member publishers of DCN. Another problem: it’s another walled garden.

Digital advertising is meant to target audience, not just specific publishers based on URLs. Delivering the right message to the right consumer at the right time in the right place is what was promised. Limiting brand spend to DCN member companies will significantly limit the access points to audiences by restricting the URL’s under consideration.  

Publishers like The Weather Company, BBC and NBCUniversal have great inventory that may comply with TAG standards by assuring marketers their ads won’t appear next to objectionable content. However, there’s not enough of this inventory to satisfy advertiser demand, especially in video, which will account for 82 percent of traffic by 2020, according to a study by Cisco. This constriction will drive CPMs to unheard of levels on these domains, making it near impossible to hit CPA goals.  Imagine paying $1,000 CPMs.  Now, in this constrained universe of publishers with astronomical CPMs, do you really think the people behind methbot wouldn’t set sights on these inflated CPMs?

There is a lot more video coming online but a large amount is either unavailable to advertisers — think Amazon Prime, HBO Now and Netflix — or runs the risk of not being safe for brands, as we saw with YouTube’s recent embarrassment over its biggest star. Walled gardens like Facebook have yet to prove they meet even Pritchard’s minimum demands.

What, then are P&G and other top marketers to do, if there’s not video enough inventory on premium publishers for the scale and needed, if current standards aren’t enough, and the walled gardens don’t suffice?

Engagement must be the standard

The solution is a standard that maps to ROI, or what some call ROAS (return on ad spend).

Marketers need a standard that measures engagement. An ad that captures someone’s attention and gets them involved will result in conversions.  Showing that real human beings were not only exposed to a message but that an advertising impression actually made an impact is a measurement that leaves viewability in the dust.  Can you name the last three billboards you saw on a drive?  They were certainly viewable, but you probably weren’t engaged.  How much ROI was delivered there?

“Craft or crap, that’s really the big question and technology enables both,” Pritchard said. Crappy ads by definition won’t get people to take notice and ask for more. Great ads will.

Pritchard and Kint are on the right path. The standards from IAB, MRC and TAG provide crucial steps toward helping the industry thrive. We must require transparency and third-party verification in the advertising supply chain, but we also need a lot more. Engagement is the next level of more.