One Step Forward, One Step Back

The past two weeks have been particularly busy for me, but I’ve gathered several random thoughts I was hoping to discuss in this column. However, for the sake of focus, I’ll adhere to two topics: one that is a strong step forward for the industry, and another that is a step backwards.

First, the positive progress. I witnessed a historical meeting of the minds last week (which was hosted at my agency). The attendees were members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the Media Ratings Council (MRC). There were about 20 “live” attendees in addition to 10+ additional people dialed in via conference call. The subject matter that drew together such an esteemed group of professionals was the definition of an ad impression.

I have been on this warpath before. For the longest time, it has seemed ludicrous to me that we are still dealing with some of the very fundamentals of the business, while at the same time crying for increased budgets and industry respect. That being said, over the past few months I have come to realize that, while on the surface this topic seems simple, it is actually very complicated (not that we shouldn’t have started solving this back in ’96 — but I digress).

A few of the key issues include agreement on the moment that an ad is actually counted (server-side vs. client-side counting), the standardization of filtration as it relates to robots and spiders to ensure accurate “human” counts, caching issues, factoring “auto-refresh” pages, identifying internal (employees of the company) traffic, etc. The good news is that we have a fundamental agreement on the issues and are well on our way to resolution. The ultimate goal is the auditing and accreditation of the key publishers and ad serving companies by the MRC. The timelines that we have discussed involve completion of accreditation for “wave one” in 2004. That is truly a step in the right direction. Let’s hope this train doesn’t lose any steam now.

One step forward and one step back.

The “step back” I am referring to is another “cost of entry” issue around providing competitive separation and content protection. This issue recently came to the forefront for me as we dealt with a client issue around competitive separation (and the lack thereof).

It boggles my mind that in this day and age of technological advancement, there are still no reasonable systems in the marketplace to ensure that competing companies’ ads are not shown on the same page. This problem gets amplified as we move more and more into a world of streaming video, where “pre-roll” ads coexist with other forms of display advertising (i.e. skyscrapers, banners, buttons, etc.). Naturally, streaming and display formats each have their own ad management solution, and they don’t pass information freely to one another. I have discussed this subject with a number of leading publishers and they openly admit that — barring human monitoring and intervention — there is no good solution today.

The ability to provide competitive separation goes under the headline of “must have” as opposed to “nice to have”. Related to this issue is the desire for clients to control the environments in which their ads run (go figure). Naturally, it is difficult to control live news and the messages that run adjacent to that environment. For those advertisers that opt for live news either in the traditional broadcast or online world, there is some base level of understanding that unfortunate adjacencies could occur. Content providers typically provide, “every reasonable effort” to prevent these occurrences — but such incidents come with the territory.

It is much more maddening when these adjacencies take place with pre-recorded content. It would stand to reason that, following a 60 Minutes segment exposing corruption in the airline industry, you probably would not want your “fly the friendly skies” jingle to air. Similarly, you may not want to run your Milky Way ad prior to some streaming content online about obesity in the United States. This stuff happens all the time.

The last issue that we are facing in this area is around content that clients just don’t want to be associated with. This includes non-“family friendly” fare, or other current events: the Michael Jackson trial, the war in Iraq, the Laci Peterson case, Kobe Bryant, etc. We should have some process or automated systems in place to be able to identify potential ad/edit incompatibility as dictated by the client. Maybe there are some solutions out there that are in trial? If you know of any, please drop me a line. I have a Web property or two I’d like to introduce them to.

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