Despite the technological advancements and digital revolution, John Wanamaker’s famous quote-“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half” is more poignant than ever. Advertising technology has enabled greater accountability, measurement, superior targeting and pinpoint ad delivery (serving) however, the dilemma the industry still grapples with is that a purchased ad may only be partially viewable. Or worse still, not at all. 

Let’s quantify this- if the global online advertising market is worth $300B+ USD, then in the time it takes for you to read this article over 50M USD of ad spend will have been wasted through ads being insufficiently viewed. To clarify, this is not fraud. In fact, it’s a very conservative figure based simply on inferior ad placement which was unable to be viewed – this doesn’t even factor the production, branding, marketing, man hour costs directed towards the execution of ad campaigns.

25 years ago, tthe first-ever banner ad in 1994 achieved a 44% click-through rate (CTR)  and set the industry on a predetermined course. Arguably, the first experts on digital siloed online advertising into Direct Response measurement – applying impression and click metrics that we would take decades to evolve away from. The advertising industry has accepted inferior measurement and audience delivery for far too long and it’s time for the industry to come together and course-correct. 

As we look ahead, it’s also important to reflect on what led us here; Apathy? Ignorance of the threats of inferior quality ad exposure? Let’s begin with a recap on viewability.





Viewability is the ability for a digital ad to be seen by an actual consumer. To be considered viewable, an ad must meet the minimum guidelines set by the industry as set out by bodies such as the MRC (Media Ratings Council) or in accordance with an advertiser or agency guidelines. Illegal bot traffic or other forms of ad fraud should never be included in the number of viewable impressions. Viewability does not describe how effective an ad was or whether it was seen by a target audience. 



For digital ads to make an impact – they must be seen, not just served, by real people wherever they are. That includes across screens and devices using both display and video ads. Viewability helps marketers understand campaign effectiveness and allows advertising spend to be allocated to the most effective media. A more viewable ad ecosystem means fewer wasted ad dollars, more efficient cost-per-mille (CPM, or cost per thousand impressions), cost savings for advertisers, and better return on investment (ROI) for your marketing dollars.



Viewability on its own is a binary metric – your ads are either viewable or not – and that is good for eliminating waste, but exposure time may be an even better metric for measuring consumer engagement, especially for brand campaigns where exposure time drives better brand recall. Studies have shown that exposure time is one of the primary drivers for outcomes, directly impacting campaign effectiveness.




Digital promised to fundamentally transform the way advertisers reach consumers and in many ways it has. We know a lot more today about how many consumers viewed our ads than the mad men of yesteryear could ever have imagined.

For all the advances of online we now have even greater challenges in ensuring the communication was shared as desired: was the ad viewable, how viewable was it and was it in a positive context?

The industry’s fixation on impressions has steered us on a certain path, focused on CPM. But that total ‘potential’ audience will tell you little on its own and comes well short of the transformation that digital promised. To really change the way we reach consumers, we need to ditch the impression and evolve the 2-dimensional (or possibly 3-dimensional) basis of ad formats and start thinking in four dimensions, including time. 

Impressions have always been a substitute for attention, and if we really want to understand attention, we need to understand time. Specifically the time our creative is in view, and how to make that time as effective as possible.

If an ad can be seen, then it has the opportunity to be effective, but that doesn’t mean that it is effective. A 2016 Integral Ad Science (IAS) study found that time-spent is a better indicator of an ad’s overall effectiveness than pixels in view. Whilst this study is a few years old the sentiment of it is no less relevant today. It finds that While 17% of those who viewed an ad at the MRC threshold or below recalled it, recall doubled to 32% for ads that exceed the MRC standard.

The main differentiator, researchers found, was not how viewable the ad was, but how long the consumer was exposed. In fact, ads with longer exposure time were more readily recalled even if they were less viewable.

Perhaps most importantly, elevating viewability to a key metric gives advertisers the opportunity to optimize their campaigns toward a dynamic measurement rather than a binary condition. Ads are either viewable, or not viewable, but time exists on a continuum. Optimal time-in-view can vary by brand, by creative, or by platform giving marketers a wider range of dials to turn when optimizing campaigns for maximum impact.

Time and time-based metrics would open the door to a host of new specialized benchmarks customized by industry vertical, platform, and even specific creative types.  Instead of building campaigns around industry averages, advertisers can use benchmarks to build custom time-in-view metrics that will reveal how long an ad should remain in view to create the best opportunity for meaningful brand-specific impact.  Rather than simply being descriptive of conditions that exist in the digital ecosystem these benchmarks could be prescriptive, guiding the levels of single-impression exposure campaigns need to reach to achieve KPIs and deliver real growth.



In a 2019 study by GroupM and IAS, they were able to prove the value of media quality, frequency and time in view, exposure time with Toyota as well as demonstrating that it resulted in impacting business outcomes: 

  • Media quality drives performance: A significant uplift in conversion rate – 83% – was observed within the group that was exposed to viewable impressions. 
  • Frequency matters: The campaign achieved the highest incremental lift in brochure downloads at a frequency cap of nine viewable impressions. 
  • Optimize for time-in-view: Although costlier, ad placements seen for three seconds or less on high quality sites such as traditional and local publisher websites drove 3,679 more brochure conversions than low quality sites. To further maximize conversions, Toyota increased bids across both high quality and low quality sites for placements with Time-in-view greater than three seconds.



The good news is that brands and publishers are improving supply chain mechanics. The introduction of ads.txt is a welcomed initiative to tackle ad fraud and the increase in publishers applying Open Measurement based on software development kits (SDKs) will enable superior viewability tracking. While ads.txt is not exhaustive, especially in our region, it is a step in the right direction.

Therefore, once benchmarks have been set and delivery appraised, action should be taken against any non-compliance and the true value of an ad placement be calculated. Using the buy price alone (CPM and cost-per-click (CPC) etc.) no longer indicates the value of an ad or the competitiveness of its pricing. Campaign execution should instead focus on cost per outcome/engagement to compare investments.

To truly understand return on ad spend (ROAS), the quality of exposure should be applied to the purchase price to create a cost per ‘viewed impression’ based on a predetermined standard. This will enable accurate comparisons of exposure and can be overlaid against the quality of placement to pinpoint the most the most suitable and successful inventory.





An unfortunate topic when covering viewability and exposure is ad fraud. The recent IAB SEA+India Regional Brand Safety Landscape uncovered that the subject only resonated amongst those that have a direct role in tackling the issue. However, with cyber criminals finding more sophisticated ways to get under the radar viewability becomes a key battleground.

Techniques such as fake bot traffic or hidden ads (non-viewable ads, typically deployed with purpose-built deception code to fake viewability) can be deployed by bad actors, so its critical to have sufficient technology to allow monitoring and recognise this and remove fraudulent impressions from your viewability data. 



The industry will benefit greatly from improved transparency and standardization of benchmarks across all platforms. Brands need to be aware of the limitations with some publishers (large & small) and the barriers to independent measurement of viewability & ad fraud metrics.

This is also prevalent for new platforms and the industry should learn from its past and start developing custom benchmarks and metrics for audibility, Connected TV, OTT, On-Demand TV etc.



Once benchmarks have been set, its critical to measure the delivery against them enabling them to be evaluated and then actions taken to optimise. There are several leading technological solutions available in market which should be vetted and appointed relevant to your communication.

Whilst this does incur incremental cost, the benefit they provide to campaigns easily offsets the fee through improved cognitive impact and enables the application of a brand safety strategy.



When it comes to viewability and exposure time, brands need to adapt a test and learn approach. It is crucial to decode what the right strategy is for them and establishing the correlation between brand health, exposure and actions.

Keeping this in view, we should continue to move away from holistic one size fits all standards when it comes to measuring viewability. Developing bespoke benchmarks for branding or performance focused campaigns. Additionally, incorporating data analytics into the conversation to attribute modelling and solutions will help to better understand the correlation to the desired outcome.




The growth in recognition of viewability’s importance together with technological advancement has at least ensured that for many brands viewability is now on their radar. However, appetite and enthusiasm varies greatly with it all too easily put in the too hard basket by advertisers for effort and/or cost.

Additionally, an increasing influence of zero-based budgeting has directed spend towards lower costing inventory but without an evaluation of the effectiveness and impact it is making.  For best in class communications brands should harness all available data and apply a bespoke formula to your chosen means of communication. Selecting a supply chain based on the ‘true outcome’ and not simply by comparing rate card or ‘net’ CPM positions.

The battle for a fair, accountable and measurable supply chain will require many changes including the terms of engagement with inventory holders. There is minimal desire for publishers to change, especially those in dominant segment positions. So to make any headwinds the industry needs a consistent and collaborative approach, taking consequential action against non-compliance or inferior delivery.  



As knowledge of viewability gains traction, momentum has been building across multiple advertising industry bodies to help educate and elevate the discussion. However communication is fragmented and global viewability standards should be taken as a bare base minimum and reviewed in the context of each brand. Accordingly, there is still a lot to be done in researching the benefits of high quality engagement and pinpointing the most valuable inventory.

We hope this opinion paper will have encouraged you to review your approach to viewable impressions. The digital landscape will continue to evolve so all brands will need to be on constant guard, otherwise you will be part of the $50M that has been wasted whilst you read this article.


IAB SEA+India Brand Safety Working Group