Tim Hussain, Head of Digital at Ebiquity UK, gives a guarded welcome to recent progress in the drive towards transparency in digital advertising’s ‘walled gardens’.

At last week’s ANA Media Conference in Florida, the subject of the measurement of users of ‘walled gardens’ was high up on advertisers’ agendas. This was made startlingly clear by Marc Pritchard, the Chief Brand Officer of Procter & Gamble, who reiterated[1] his company’s demands for independent research into the social media channels and their audience delivery.

While welcoming recent flexibility from Facebook and Google in terms of external measurement, Pritchard sounded a warning note: it’s not done yet. The intentions are good, but the practicalities are significant. He put the ‘walled gardens’ on notice that P&G would review its investments unless independent measurement becomes a reality.

Also speaking at the conference, John Nitti, Verizon’s Chief Media Officer, described the ‘walled gardens’ as ‘blind spots’ and questioned his company’s willingness to invest in them further without third-party measurement.

In response to pressure from the ANA, last month Facebook announced that it had agreed to be independently audited by the Media Ratings Council (MRC), the independent body for media measurement accreditation in the U.S. As is the vogue for announcements from leading digital media companies, the commitment was made in a blog post[2], titled “Accountability and new choices for marketers”. While this announcement is a step in the right direction, it’s not yet clear when this will start. Nor is it certain whether it will usher in a comprehensive and transparent measurement process, or whether Facebook is simply allowing the MRC to get a clearer idea of how it works.

Not to be outdone, Google announced that the MRC had been invited to audit YouTube’s third-party measurement partners – DoubleVerify, Integral Ad Science, and Moat. The MRC will collect and present data measuring whether video ads are viewable on the platform and the duration of those views. The announcement was also made as a corporate blog post[3], and the Wall Street Journal headlined its coverage[4] “Google Agrees to YouTube Metrics Audit to Ease Advertisers’ Concerns”. The move is designed to bring YouTube in line with its parent company’s other ad properties; Google already has 30 accreditations from the MRC for display, search, and mobile.

While these are definitely steps in the right direction, the practicalities of getting from good intentions to industry-level accreditation were hammered home at the ANA conference by George Ivey, the CEO of the MRC, who described the elaborate process of getting to reliable measurement standards for any medium. The MRC has to validate multiple platforms for multiple media, and it takes months to get it right.

The ‘Large Digital Enterprises’ (to use the MRC term for ‘walled garden’ platforms) are a long way off being accredited to the standard advertisers want. What’s more, some ‘walled gardens’ (notably Twitter, SnapChat and Pinterest) are yet to declare their hand. With Snapchat successfully floating last week at a valuation over US$30BN, it could be under pressure from investors if leading advertisers start to question its ability to justify its advertising revenue and threaten to take their money elsewhere.

This is going to be a long journey that requires full cooperation from the ‘walled gardens’, and the traditional publishers will not miss the opportunity to reclaim lost territory. Premium publishers represented by Digital Content Next – a consortium whose members include Hearst, the New York Times, Time Inc., and Turner – have said they can help solve the digital transparency dilemma. CEO Jason Kint said[5] in an open letter to Marc Pritchard: “We have heard your calls for brand safety. We want to assure you that our trusted, market-leading brands will continue to engage in meaningful ways to promote and protect your trusted brands.”

A vital step media owners and platforms must take or else face a steep decline in ad revenue

So, leading ‘walled garden’ platforms and major publishers are apparently falling over themselves to tell the world how transparent they have now become – or will be.  This is of course to be welcomed. Bob Liodice, President and CEO of the ANA has said that Facebook and Google’s recent audit commitments represent a “turning point”. There is every reason to be optimistic that he’s right; that the industry is developing what was recently described[6] as a “Walled Garden 2.0 approach”, a vital step media owners and platforms must take or else face a steep decline in ad revenue.

Many questions, remain, however. It’s by no means certain that the MRC’s methodologies and technology will be able to deliver standardized measurement for Facebook and Google at scale. And while the two platforms-cum-media-owners are important – accounting for more than 70% of global online display revenue – there are thousands of other properties and sites carrying advertising that need to fall into line, too. Measurement standards in the online advertising market are currently low across the board.

Another major issue is the measurement of mobile. This really matters, as more than half of Facebook’s users only access it on mobile devices. Mobile presents unique difficulties of tracking, including different operating systems, different ad formats, several browsers, and in-app versus mobile web.

Furthermore, the ‘walled gardens’ are reluctant to add yet more tags to their webpages, as these slow down page downloads. Currently, the baseline data produced by ‘walled gardens’ is passed onto third parties for verification, but this will need to change for proper measurement.

So far, the loudest voices clamoring for third-party measurement have been those of advertisers, not the media agencies. The industry needs the agencies to resume its traditional role of identifying the right audiences to reach in the available channels, and this can only be done by using independently-verified data. The real pressure on ‘walled gardens’ will come when the agencies start to channel clients’ budgets towards channels that do provide such data. This is long overdue.

Thanks to P&G, Verizon, the ANA, and other advertisers who are speaking out, we are seeing a dawning of digital glasnost and perestroika – openness and restructuring. This is a good start for the industry, but it’s only that. A start. More pressure will be needed, especially from the media agencies, to turn good intentions into reality.

[1] http://bit.ly/2lYqB2x

[2] http://bit.ly/2l10h44

[3] http://bit.ly/2lXPnhP

[4] http://on.wsj.com/2lHZN7G

[5] http://bit.ly/2kDrppC

[6] http://bit.ly/2lsTxw8