Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard issued a call to arms before the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting last week. "The days of giving digital a pass are over," Mr. Pritchard said, urging the ad industry to follow P&G's lead by paying only for digital media that meets industry standards for "viewable" advertising, with results vetted by third parties. "It's time to grow up. It's time for action."
Given the state of the digital ecosystem, however, a united front may be all but impossible.
P&G and other marketers such as Clorox and Prudential Financial support the viewability standard of the industry's Media Rating Council, which deems ads "viewable" if at least half their pixels are on-screen for at least one second. For video, it's two seconds.
But Prudential Financial uses the MRC standards as a "baseline," said Anna Papadopoulos, VP-integrated media services. She favors "partners who can guarantee much longer view times than two seconds for video and more than 50% viewability on display ads," such as Hulu and YouTube, she said. P&G is focusing on the MRC standards as a "minimum," said spokeswoman Tressie Rose, "to enable comparative measurement and learning."
Rival Unilever, which has been outspoken about demanding tougher standards, declined to comment on whether it would close ranks with P&G and others using MRC metrics as a baseline. So did GroupM, whose viewability standards Unilever has been using. In their case, it might be considered backtracking. The GroupM standard calls for 100% of display pixels to be in view for any length of time, and 100% of videos to be visible for at least half the length of the ad, with the sound on and after someone clicks it.
On the ground, however, things are even more nuanced. Some GroupM agencies routinely settle for less—i.e., the MRC threshold—when prices for its more restrictive standards get expensive, according to Brian Fitzgerald, president of digital publisher Evolve Media. GroupM declined to comment.
The share of a campaign's ads that must be viewable also varies by agency and client, with some demanding 100% and others accepting less, Mr. Fitzgerald said. Even then, the ads rated viewable vary according to the auditor.
Fifteen companies have MRC accreditation to measure viewability, down from more than 20 two years ago but still a Tower of Babel. Recent efforts have worked to reconcile differences among auditors, MRC CEO George Ivie said. "The data we've seen, mostly from agencies, has led us to believe the discrepancy issue has greatly reduced, essentially down to acceptable levels."
Efforts to eliminate "invalid traffic," on the other hand, have added to differences. Many vendors have proprietary "sophisticated" safeguards, Mr. Ivie said, which can lead to more variation.
Not everyone even agrees that a single set of metrics should apply. The Instagram experience "is dramatically different" than on YouTube or Snapchat, said Brandon Rhoten, VP-head of advertising, media and digital at Wendy's. The average time spent watching videos on YouTube, for example, is dramatically higher than on Facebook, he said.
"I'm not sure that it's an apples-to-apples experience," he said. "So therefore, I don't know that it's apples-to-apples measurement."
Contributing: Jessica Wohl