Advertisers Demand Accountability

A group of high profile advertisers are banding together to demand online publishers begin providing audited impression counts by the middle of next year.

Several large advertisers made the call, including BMW, Colgate-Palmolive, Ford Motor Co., HP, ING, Kimberly-Clark, Pepsi and Visa. They are asking publishers to comply with a set of guidelines set forth by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), which call for publishers to conduct a third-party audit of impression counts, and to certify the process by which they count impressions.

The advertisers, all IAB members, are asking for audited numbers from online publishers by mid-2007 and certified numbers in 2008.

“The Internet is a big part of marketers’ budgets, and it’s becoming more important. It needs to operate on the same principles as other media,” Greg Stuart, CEO of the IAB, told ClickZ. “All media are audited and certified. They have to be, with the amount of money being spent. This is a maturing of the [online] medium.”

The Global Ad Impression Measurement Guidelines were established to promote consistent ad server measurement, including the counting methodology, an audit procedure, and an auditing and certification process. They offer a detailed definition for counting an impression.

The IAB issued the guidelines in November 2004, and began working with ad-serving companies and publishers with proprietary ad-serving technology soon after. A majority of those companies are now compliant, including Atlas, DoubleClick, AOL, Yahoo, and Walt Disney Internet Group. Others are in the process of completing audits and certification against the guidelines.

According to Stuart, two-thirds of the guidelines apply to technology, while the other third apply to processes. With most of the technology hurdles addressed by ad-serving providers, the IAB is now moving into the second phase of the process, which will encourage publishers and agencies to make sure their processes fit the guidelines.

While the process of bringing the technology in line with the guidelines was very expensive for some technology providers, Stuart does not expect publishers to face similar costs. “The costs to change the technology can be expensive. For publishers and agencies, the burden is small, relative to the importance of doing it,” Stuart said.

The IAB is not recommending specific providers to perform the audits, but is leaving it up to the marketplace to step in and fill the need. That could be done by traditional auditors, like PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, or Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. Online traffic auditors, like I/PRO and BPA Worldwide, might decide to create an online ad auditing service.

Enforcement will be driven by the buyers, who will apply pressure with their budgets, Stuart said.

“Marketers and agencies are the enforcement arm. They have to demand this as a requirement of their media or agency partners. They really should expect it, and there’s no reason for publishers to resist,” he said.

Publishers share the goal of achieving a high level of accountability in media measurement, according to Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association.

“Working together with advertisers, publishers are already taking steps to ensure the most consistent and reliable measurement numbers. We will support our members in this effort, and work to make sure that the needs of both advertisers and publishers are fully considered and addressed,” Horan said.

The IAB has developed guidelines for rich media, video ads, and is working on a set for pay-per-click ads. Those all include a recommendation for auditing as well, and Stuart expects advertisers to require auditing and certification for those ad units at some point as well.

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