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May the Best Attention Metric Win

April 11, 2023 | By Olivia Morley

In the absence of a standardized metric, agencies and sellers are defining attention on their own terms.

“Why do we have standards in a lot of other parts of our media ecosystem, but in this place it’s acceptable not to have standards?” Doug Rozen, CEO of Dentsu Media Americas, wondered.

For the past five years, Rozen’s holding company has been studying consumer attention in partnership with a few attention-tracking firms to prove that ads optimized for attention perform better.

Large agency holding companies like Rozen’s are pursuing similar research, hoping that the results will lead to better campaign ROI. In some cases, sell-side partners are already treating attention as its own currency—even guaranteeing buys with attention metrics.

Theoretically, these efforts help marketers realize more investment value. Marketers hope optimizing ad placements to garner optimal attention will increase conversions, or at least generate more brand salience.

But frustratingly for Rozen and other agency leaders with a vested interest in attention tracking, the industry has yet to standardize attention metrics. If a media buyer wants a sell-side publisher to guarantee a certain amount of attention per media buy, the buyer and seller must both agree on what KPI best represents attention.

In the absence of a standardized metric, agencies and sellers are defining attention on their own terms. Many disagree about what the most accurate attention KPIs are, if KPIs should be used to guarantee media buys and if an industry body could or should enforce any standardized metric.

“There’s multiple types of attention. Why is one type of attention right? How do you decide that the attention [tracking methodology] for one partner is the same, or different, from another type of partner, and why is that better for your brand? That’s the thing we need to start asking ourselves,” said Andrew Spurrier-Dawes, head of precision, EMEA, at the GroupM agency Wavemaker.

How OMD’s Attention Planning Tool Transforms Campaign Strategy

Defining attention on their own terms

The topic of how best to harness attention incites a lot of industry debate.

“We really see it as a leading indicator, or a strong media metric, that tells us that we’re likely to see a higher propensity to consideration if we are seeing higher attention,” said Britt Cushing, OMD USA head of communications planning.

Most agency leaders agree that established attention metrics would be better measurement alternatives to now-common advertising metrics like CPMs, impressions, reach and viewability.

“​​Viewability just says it’s seen. Attention says it’s seen, and understood and remembered,” Cushing added.

The attention-tracking space is proliferating thanks to the work holding companies are doing with major players Amplified Intelligence, Lumen and Adelaide and others like Playground xyz, DoubleVerify, IAS, RealEyes, Tobii, TVision, and even Oracle with its Moat analytics suite. These firms employ varied methodologies to determine if consumers are paying attention to ads and to what extent.

As for how accurate those methodologies and signifiers are—it depends on who you ask.

“There needs to be a moment where everyone comes together and shares a lot of that information, so that it’s not like it’s all disparate work streams,” said Joanne Leong, svp of global partnerships at Dentsu Media. “We’re almost in this ‘test and learn’ phase to understand what works best, and for what use cases, because again—this is still a very new field.”

‘A land grab for attention’

Despite recently becoming a hot-button industry topic, as Leong attests, the attention-tracking space is still largely untrodden territory for the broader advertising ecosystem. Holding companies, with their sprawling resources, have invested in attention research—to varying degrees—for years. Most independent agencies have made less progress.

Because of this, a brand’s ability to leverage attention-based planning varies significantly depending on which agency it partners with.

“I do think people tend to lean in the direction of investing in a singular partner so that they can develop a set of solutions and refine from there,” Havas Media Group vp and director of analytics Parvati Vaish said.

Each holding company mostly prescribes to its respective attention measurement or research partners’ ideologies. As competitors with differentiated offerings, those partners all approach research and measurement differently.

“There’s almost been a land grab for attention, and there’s so many different players in the space. All of those different players have a different definition and a different methodology of attention,” Leong told Adweek.

Inside Dentsu Media’s 5-Year Endeavor to Measure Attention 

Making the concept ‘ownable’

These ideological disagreements on what attention means and scientific squabbles about which attention-tracking research is most accurate are, in large part, fueling division and are part of why the industry has so far failed to accept standardized attention KPIs. But many agency leaders like Rozen remain hopeful that standardization is still possible, despite agencies’ different approaches.

“Competitive differentiation is separate from standardization,” Rozen said. “Standardization allows for the ability for more acceptance.”

But the different approaches do pit some competitors against each other in a nascent market where anyone could theoretically create a lasting solution. No holding company entertains a fully exclusive relationship with any tracking firm, but some are more deeply aligned with particular firms than others, considering that Dentsu works primarily with Lumen, Omnicom works primarily with Amplified Intelligence and Havas works primarily with Lumen globally and with Adelaide in the U.S.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the agencies aren’t actively trying to look for ways to make the concept ownable, unique to their delivery and their services,” Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester Research, told Adweek. This “makes sense when you’re in a competitive pitch situation, but it completely flies in the face of the objectives of standardization.”

This competitive market makes it hard for agencies to take the first step toward standardization: defining attention. More complex feats like deciding on how to measure it and how to get sell-side media partners and clients on board, are light-years away.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is applying attention to an omnichannel world where attentiveness varies by format—say audio or video—that require different metrics to gauge their effectiveness.

“The way attention is defined and then classified within that definition is not universal. So we need to get there first, and that is the hiccup,” said Luke Lambert, OMD USA chief innovation officer. “It’s just really quite difficult to say that there will be one unifying attention definition, when the way in which you measure it can probably never be truly unified.”

Leaders predict unintended consequences

Agencies are not the only groups with a say on the matter’s outcome. Marketers, ad-tech firms and research firms must get on the same page at the risk of a single methodology taking hold sooner rather than later. Ad-tech firms Google Display & Video 360, Xandr, Magnite, PubMatic and Teads are making impactful decisions, most recently offering buyers access to Adelaide via private marketplaces, Adweek reported in March.

Leong believes that the longer standardization evades the industry, the more risk of fraud increases.

“Most of the players in the space are pretty legitimate in terms of what they do,” Leong told Adweek. “But there could be these players that, quote unquote, say they, ‘Do attention.’”

It’s that likelihood of unvetted partnerships and inaccurate research that puts marketers at risk of losing money as they chase more ROI, according to the leader. If clients don’t see their investments paying off, they risk losing faith in attention-based decisions, at the detriment of agencies’ efforts. Should that happen, agencies might find years of research suddenly becoming futile.

“We need governing bodies like the Media Rating Council (MRC), the Joint Industry Committee (JIC), the Video Advertising Bureau (VAB) and others that have been helping us set minimum standards for cross-platform measurement. We need to do the same thing here for attention metrics,” said Celeste Castle, evp and head of measurement at the Dentsu media investment and innovation platform, Amplifi.

Others challenge Dentsu’s position, with the leader of one attention-tracking firm who wished to remain anonymous telling Adweek that clients, rather than those industry bodies, should decide which approach works best for them.

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