This year’s global Festival of Media in Rome has just concluded its typical, idiosyncratic mix of conference, networking, education and awards. It may be charmingly chaotic at times but it’s a reliable barometer of what’s big in media now and what is to come.

This year’s format reflected the key undercurrents in the industry, with three separate strands for Programmatic, Content and Measurement.

Yes, measurement is now a hot topic, and especially in online advertising.

For many years, digital media have grown exponentially without the standard research frameworks which traditional channels have long been obliged to offer.

Independent audience research, certification, common standards, and currencies have been built up in media channels over decades for a good reason. They support the infrastructure of the ad-funded business model. Yet online advertising has grown enormously without them and advertisers have invested heavily in it without the traditional safeguards that are de rigueur in offline media.

However, things are changing. Advertisers have now woken up to the fact that online advertising is the ‘Wild West’, where $200 billion is estimated to be spent this year without the measurement guardrails that govern the rest of the media world. This is a huge investment at risk.

In fact, new research from Ebiquity and the World Federation of Advertisers shows that advertisers are continuing to invest heavily in online advertising despite their many reservations about measurement, reporting, viewability, ad fraud and brand safety.

Only 28% of respondents to the survey were satisfied with the measurement of online display, only 21% with its reporting and 21% with its performance. So advertisers are investing in a channel that they don’t especially regard as well-measured. Some 72% of the respondents said that advertisers have over-invested in online advertising given the lack of effective measurement.

And even now, the research shows that those metrics that are being used are exposure-related (such as video completion rates), and not proof of effectiveness.

So, will advertisers continue to invest in online if the independent measurement, certification, and common standards do not arrive and there is inadequate evidence of effectiveness?

In Rome, Ebiquity had the privilege of discussing these issues with senior advertisers from McDonald’s (Nicole Kane) and Philips (Sital Banerjee), and two illuminati of the digital world (Ben Barokas and Greg Stuart).

The Rome panel amplified the call for better measurement but agreed that the industry has grown used to the lack of sophisticated currencies other than the most basic (impressions, cost-per-mille), thereby setting a very low bar for the industry.

There was a real concern in particular that the ‘Large Digital Enterprises’ (primarily Facebook and Google) have become so powerful that advertisers feel obliged to invest with them even if the necessary independent data isn’t available and even if evidence of success is patchy.

There was general agreement in Rome that it is late in the day to be aiming to unite the industry to resolve the lack of third party verification, and the Ebiquity/WFA research suggests that advertisers are simply chasing audiences into digital anyway in order to compensate for reduced reach in legacy media.

In the absence of industry consensus and solutions, it is clear that advertisers need to take control and look after their own interests.

The Ebiquity approach is to recommend advertisers take four key steps to improve measurement and effectiveness:

  1. Ensure that the media channels being proposed on any plan have been thoroughly assessed using the most accurate, reliable and recent data, independently sourced.
  2. Check that the right metrics are in place for the measurement of audience exposure, with stretch targets for viewability, ad fraud elimination, and strict brand safety protocols.
  3.  Assess the effectiveness of performance, not just exposure, with business-related KPIs.
  4. Understand and get involved in the technology and data infrastructure being used, including provenance of data sources.

The measurement of online advertising delivery and performance will become one of the dominant themes of 2017 and beyond. It will take a long time for the industry to coalesce around agreed solutions; in the meantime, advertisers will need to provide their own measurement frameworks for online advertising.