Verdict Mixed on New IAB Standards

The Interactive Advertising Bureau released its highly-anticipated guidelines for impression measurement and auditing on Tuesday to much fanfare. But now that industry players have had a chance to mull over the association’s new standards, some are concerned they don’t go far enough.

What has some insiders upset is that the IAB and other organizations have been promising for years to deliver new ways to stamp out discrepancies between different types of ad-serving and tracking procedures. Nevertheless, the new IAB guidelines describe “best practices” for tracking impressions in two different procedures for delivering ads: in-house ad serving and third-party ad serving.

With two formalized standards, then, the guidelines still leave room for dual sets of measurements, which means publishers (who use the in-house solution) and advertisers (who rely on third-party serving) could still be at loggerheads over whose numbers are correct. (For its part, the IAB said it’s working with auditors to further explore the issue.)

As a result, “There’s not a lot of bite to them, and it doesn’t really change anything,” said Mark Stephens, media director at Lot21. “It still leaves a site’s counting measure as an ultimate standard, which puts you in the position of not having a standard at all, really. A lot of agencies and clients are getting to the point were they third-party ad serve. I’d love to see a standard come across just for that.”

Certainly, many in the industry heralded the IAB’s effort as important for the development of the medium. Despite early attempts by associations like the Future of Advertising Stakeholders, and more recent, informal efforts by the Aspen Group, the IAB is the first industry body to have published formal standards on the matter.

Additionally, unlike most earlier effort, central to the IAB’s campaign was an attempt to involve outside groups in establishing measurement guidelines. The IAB, which is comprised of advertising sellers, consulted with and received endorsements from major bodies representing media buyers, advertising agencies, and media auditors.

In spite of the hugeness of the IAB’s campaign and its major support from other industry groups, many in the online advertising space say the result changes little. More specifically, some say the IAB missed an opportunity to choose one ad-serving and tracking procedure over the other.

“We find it a positive initiative in its attempt to standardize ROI-calculable metrics,” said Trafficmac founder and chief executive Lorne Brown. But the development of the ad market will “continue to be plagued by an industry comprised of third-party ad serving solutions that stand behind their proprietary counting methods, albeit some of which have been Process Audited by PricewaterhouseCoopers themselves.”

From Brown’s perspective serving publishers, “the current difficulties that stem from proprietary back-end counting and delivery systems will not be solved until everyone employs the same standards for counting, delivery and reconciliation, and that will require a more aggressive approach.”

Brian McAndrews, chief executive and president of Seattle-based Avenue A, a combined media agency and ad serving company, said the guidelines don’t go far enough either. (That’s in spite of being instrumental in the guidelines’ development, as one of the 11 major advertising firms studied by the IAB in developing its standards.)

“The third-party ad serving standard is the more appropriate standard, because it measures closer to the opportunity to see the ad,” McAndrews said. “It’s a better standard, and we believe that’s what advertisers want as well.”

“Publishers, for the most part, will continue to count they way they’ve always counted, which is kind of why the IAB’s guidelines don’t go far enough,” he added. “It just sort of recognizes the status quo.”

Yet the IAB’s guidelines also had its defenders. While those supporters admit the IAB hasn’t singled out either form of tracking as superior, they contend that the effort encourages best practices within both forms. Because of that, both advertisers and publishers understand how the other is accounting for impressions, which could make negotiations easier in the future.

“You’re going to continue to have [disagreements] but now they’ll be covered [upfront],” said Scott McLernan, executive vice president of sales and marketing at MarketWatch.com. “The IAB has taken a look at best practices in the industry, and established criteria for them. I don’t care what the regulations are, but I just want the regulations so I can do as I’m told. The industry has been fraught with these issues … When you have an industry that can’t get along, traditional advertisers are going to sit on the sidelines.”

Scott Spencer, director of product management for DART for Publishers at DoubleClick, agreed that the guidelines at least set baselines for understanding publishers’ figures. (The IAB also studied DoubleClick’s processes in drawing up its guidelines.)

“When an advertiser deals with two different publishers, say, a customer of DoubleClick’s and someone who’s not, they have to go through and be able to say ‘these are comparable numbers,'” Spencer said. “These guidelines are designed to make these numbers comparable … that makes the entire industry better.”

Still others said that already-strong relationships between publishers and advertisers should be enough to iron out whatever issues exist because of the IAB guidelines.

“I applaud the idea that we’re developing guidelines — I think it’s very necessary,” said Tony Uphoff, president and CEO at New York-based Beliefnet. “But the best way to manage through [discrepancies] is to manage the relationship — to decide upfront on expectations and how to measure.”

“Guidelines like this are great, but say the vice president of marketing at Coke comes in and says, ‘I don’t believe your numbers and I don’t care about the IAB guidelines.’ Is the IAB going to come in and negotiate that for you? Does this outrun the necessity of developing a relationship with an advertiser based on mutual benefit?” he said. “The only way we can really try to manage this is to get on the same side of the table, and agree on what makes sense for our businesses.”

Despite contention over whether the guidelines succeed or fail in reducing tensions between publishers and advertisers, many recognized that the IAB’s campaigns stands as one of the industry’s few formalized efforts to approach what Michael Zimbalist, acting executive director of the Online Publishers Association, dubbed the “Holy Grail” — that is, verification of a user’s actual opportunity to see an ad.

“To some extent, what’s important is that we all recognize this set of guidelines is a first step in a process in getting to that,” Zimbalist said. “I think that really, what everybody wants to get to is a point where you’re measuring the opportunity to see an ad. That’s what you’re measuring in any other media out there. And at the end of the day, the question of whether [the industry selects] the third-party ad server side or the publisher server side will be beside the point.”

“The key thing is this is the first step in the process,” Zimbalist added. “It’s not over yet, but it got a good, healthy dialog going.”

Added Lot21’s Stephens, “Certainly, it doesn’t go all the way to client-side verification. That’s what we’d love to have. The technology is there — there are issues like whether it’s economically scalable or not — but that’s what people on my side of the fence want to see.”

“But I always applaud any time the IAB steps up and at least puts out a set of guidelines,” he added. “It’s something that needs to happen.”

Industry insiders also commended the IAB for its guidelines’ neat handling of several less vexing, but still critical, issues. For instance, the guidelines laid down the law on “best practices” for filtering out impressions generated by machines (such as by search engine bots) and for full disclose of practices for ad and pageview counting.

“We definitely feel very good about some of the other guidelines. Before them, there were different people doing different things, such as with bot filtration,” said Avenue A’s McAndrews. “We think this will help bring more uniformity in those areas, which is important.”

Added Zimbalist, “A really important part is the emphasis on disclosure in the guidelines. So long as both parties buyer and seller understand what the expectations are and what they are measuring, that’s a great thing.”

Similarly, Brown said the IAB’s guidelines, though potentially lacking, remain “valuable.”

They attempt “to clarify and standardize a vernacular that we can all use in the pursuit of our empirical studies which will, hopefully, lead to a standardized counting and delivery process,” he said.

Along a similar line, though some contended that the IAB pulled punches with regard to the guidelines’ original goal, several critics applauded the effort for what it represented about the industry as a whole.

“I think it’s about time that the IAB has addressed the most important need of the industry that contributes $8.6 billion to online advertising,” said Stacey Nachtaler of New York-based interactive ad agency i-traffic, a unit of Agency.com. “As an agency, now we can at least start to spend less time on discrepancy resolution and more time on bottom-line revenue generation on behalf of clients.”

Added McAndrews, “I think it’ll help … because advertisers understand that the industry is trying to take on some of the issues that are challenging to [it], so it inspires confidence in advertisers that the industry isn’t shying away from those issues.”

“Even though [the IAB guidelines] haven’t resolved all the issues … I do commend the IAB for bringing the right people together,” he said. “If that continues, we could make a lot of headway. We think we’ll ultimately get there, and we think this is a step in the right direction.”

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