Busting the myth of “viewability”

Stuart Elmes

Our hypothesis was simple.

The IAB’s viewability standards, as they currently exist - under which 50% of the pixels from a digital ad need to appear on screen for only one second to be considered “viewable” - are inadequate. 

So, we made this 34 second video:

The video:

Our video featured 30 digital ads from major FMCG brands, all of which were exactly 50% visible and appeared on screen for exactly 1 second.

Then we invited our social media friends and well-wishers to view the video and let us know how many brands they could remember when the video was over.

How many of these supposedly “viewable” digital ads would make a lasting impression on those they were meant to impress?

As it turns out, not many.


Busting the myth of “viewability”

The results:

Of the 31 people who accepted our IAB “viewability” challenge and took 34 seconds out of their day to participate, the average number of brands out of the 30 featured in the video that each viewer was able to recall at the end worked out to less than 4.5 brands per person.

That leaves 25.5 brands, all of whom would’ve paid for the “view” their ads supposedly received during the video, who basically got no qualitative or quantitative return on their investment whatsoever.


What does this mean for “viewability”?

Could our little viewability experiment be considered “scientific”?

Not even close.

Are there hundreds of variables we did not take into account, myriad questions left unanswered, and dozens of holes in our methodology?


But that doesn’t mean we are wrong.

And we also aren’t alone.

GroupM, the self proclaimed “world’s largest media investment group”, has been beating the viewability drum for quite some time, insisting on 100% pixel viewability for any display ad placement it purchases, and even stricter standards for its video ad purchases.

With GroupM’s $100 billion + billings, as well as support from industry behemoths like Unilever Chief Brand Officer Keith Weed calling for the industry to rally around GroupM’s standards, it looks like the viewability tide may finally be turning.

The Media Rating Council (MRC), which has adhered to the IAB standards mentioned above for the past 3 years, appears ready to re-evaluate.

MRC Senior Vice President David Gunzerath went on the record recently to proclaim that the MRC will “definitely” reconsider viewability standards during its review of current cross-media audience measurement later in 2017.  

For brands wishing to reach digital audiences (which is pretty much all of them), this is very good news.

As the world’s biggest brands and media purchasers continue to apply pressure for better accountability and stricter standards in the digital advertising realm, it is hoped that the current trend toward more effective audience delivery will continue.

Where does that leave us? 

In the meantime, brands and agencies with the clout to demand more for their digital ad dollar will continue to have a marked advantage than those which don’t.

The big question is, how much longer can the current imbalance in this area be allowed to continue, and when will a viewability standard rooted in the realities of the digital marketplace and the very real needs of advertising brands finally be struck?

Until a healthy balance between the two can be found, the debate rages on.