Third-party measurement is no magic bullet

Facebook has a trust problem. The first time it announced a metrics screwup, advertisers shrugged. The next time, they raised an eyebrow. By the third time, they had to wonder what was going on.

“This news has put a level of doubt or mistrust in our clients that is a hurdle we have had to overcome,” said Kevin Wright, director of social media at Blitz. In response to the snafus, marketers unanimously lobbied for third-party measurement audits. Those audits are now here since Facebook and YouTube have opened up themselves to Media Ratings Council inspections.

Measurement errors have been a nice leverage tool for agencies criticizing platforms. But the veiled calls for transparency are often desperate cries for attention made by players seeing their margins crushed while an oligopoly continues to reap growing revenues. Because even with the new audits in place, marketers still have lots of issues to clear up with the platforms and the measurement firms themselves.

Independent verification could bring more clarity and honesty to how the platforms report, which is why marketers have praised Facebook and Google for allowing MRC audits. But better measurement doesn’t solve for the fact that Facebook and Google’s share of the overall digital ad pie continues to grow. Better measurement across social platforms also won’t improve the overall ad tech ecosystem, which is constantly accused of inefficiency, unnecessary complexity and sucking up too many ad dollars while providing little value in return. Better platform measurement also fails to improve alternative advertising outlets that could reduce the power of the duopoly.

But these problems are obvious, and it is unrealistic to expect third-party vendors to be able to solve for them. What has been less reported is that clients using third-party measurement services have trouble differentiating between their wide variance in outcomes and making sense of their unclear research methods.

“At the end of the day, there is so much disparity in numbers between vendors that I think we need to either pick one or give a standardized methodology by IAB that allows us to know what is what,” says Charles Cantu, CEO of ad tech firm Huddled Masses.

When pressed about the lack of standardization, measurement firms and industry trade groups emphasize that most vendors are accredited by the MRC.

“You do have to be cautious about taking vendors at their word, which is why you need the MRC [accreditation],” says Jane Clarke, CEO of the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement.

MRC standards ensure that accredited firms have to meet minimum thresholds and adhere to common definitions. But sources say that the current standards overlook that vendors widely vary in their technological capabilities, which contributes to disparate outcomes. The MRC downplays this as a problem, but also acknowledges that it’s a fact.

“If this was three or four years ago, I’d say it is a big issue,” says David Gunzerath, MRC associate director and svp. “Today, I’d say discrepancy can still be an issue, but it has gotten smaller.”

Sources, including a few execs from measurement companies, were also miffed that some verification vendors publish research that makes large claims while hiding the sample size of the study.

“I look at that as great marketing material, but not necessarily great research material,” says DoubleVerify CEO Wayne Gattinella. “It tends to be more self-promotional than legitimate research.”

Although marketers would like more insight into the proprietary methodologies of the measurement vendors they use, they should also realize that at some point they need to take matters into their own hands.

“I view the goal of third-party measurement,” says, Larry Cohen, executive director of Interpublic group ad-buying agency Mediabrands Society, “as an indicator of where to start the verification process rather than the ending of the process.”

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