A study in early February gave display advertisers pause for thought.

Meetrics found that average rates of viewability across Europe fell 5% in the final quarter of 2015, compared to Q3.

Yet the issue of viewability remains just one worry within an industry suffering the brunt of widespread ad-blocker adoption, while continuing to garner accusations of being ‘outdated’ and overly disruptive to the user.

To gain a perspective on where the display ad industry is sitting within the UK, PerformanceIN spoke to former BBC Advertising global SVP sales operations, and newly-made CEO of Intelligent Optimizations, Tom Bowman.

Recent viewability stats from Meetrics would suggest in the UK we’re facing a crisis in display advertising. Is that the case?

Tom Bowman: I don’t think there is a crisis, that’s too rash to say. I’ve been through 20 years of people telling me the banner is dead. Display remains a highly effective format; we should have moved beyond that now. It’s true to say people don’t click on ads if they’re irrelevant but this can be solved by better targeting, and viewability is within the gift of publishers to manage.

The change in viewability stats is likely to do with changes in the devices consumers use happening faster than changes in content presentation as much as anything to do with those concerning the ad delivery system. So, the real challenge is, does the display ad match the device correctly? If your website is responsive, the position and number of ad units served should be re-flowed.

Is there a validity issue with the definition of ‘viewability’? Are advertisers striving to meet a dubious metric?

TB: According to the MRC [Media Rating Council], at least 50% of the surface of an online ad must appear in the visible area of the browser for at least one second. The emergence of this standardisation is welcome, however, if you run viewability tracking software from different vendors, you get different results for the same thing. One wonders how useful a metric that is.

But it has ever been thus in digital media – ad servers tend to count differently, and that’s the nature of the beast. The UK TV industry settled on gross rating points as a metric. It’s not perfect, but it’s agreed upon and a currency – that is the important point – and buyers will and do settle on one flavour of viewability, using it for directional feedback.

These aren’t enormous technical challenges. The industry can come together. It will get there and we will settle down over time.

You described the concept of viewability as akin to ‘currency’. Can expand on this, and the potential consequences?

TB: Viewability is a currency; just one of many. Common currencies can be a good thing. Used in the correct way, viewability can be used as a common currency. However, this currency will never be the only measure, and viewable ads don’t necessarily make for good ads. ‘Currency’ is a very utilitarian word.

Advertising is an art as well as a science. We must remember to delight users, not just reach them.

Let’s talk programmatic: many have said it has ‘revolutionised’ the industry in recent years, but globally speaking, is that statement a little premature?

TB: Programmatic’s adoption has been rapid. It has only been around for maybe six years and has altered the balance of power between media owners and advertisers.

It’s no coincidence that programmatic has emerged first in larger ad markets and more sophisticated technology markets. In countries like the US and UK, advertising is a larger percentage of GDP than elsewhere, so I’m not surprised that these countries have embraced programmatic soonest, nor in Scandinavia, where the online population is high.

Why do you think adoption of programmatic is lacking somewhat? In certain European markets for example…

TB: I don’t think it’s lacking at all. The UK is arguably the leading programmatic market in the world. Whilst it isn’t as large as America, it is more maneuverable.

Data shows mobile advertising is proportionally more programmatic than desktop, so nations with higher smartphone adoption will have a propensity to skew more toward the technology.

In the future, I believe all ad buying will be programmatic although not necessarily this generation of technology.

Let’s talk about your latest career move. How did the experience you gathered at BBC Advertising land you at the helm of IO?

TB: I had a brilliant time at the BBC. I was hired to take the international web service commercial. I learned a huge amount and largely achieved what I had in my head that I wanted to do. It’s a great global brand, and I loved it. However, I’m also interested in new and emerging technology, and in the art and mystery of advertising. I left the first publisher I worked for to start an ad agency, before going back into media.

The art and science of advertising are both fascinating.That Wanamaker statement – “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half” – is what is driving me. I’m fascinated by software, and what technology will do for this industry. How can we do advertising better? That’s what led to online in the first place and IO delivers on right person, right time.

Finally, do you have any personal forecasts for the state of the programmatic industry over the course of the next 12 months, and any parting advice for practitioners?

TB: Machine learning will become the next generation of programmatic, properly delivering on the concept’s original promise.

One limitation of programmatic right now, for many advertisers, is that you’re still using old-fashioned ways of buying advertising. We have clever new pipes, automation – but, buyers are still saying, ‘I’m looking for a 25-35 male from southern England’. Machine learning will buy ads based on actual consumer intentions and behaviour.

This is the hot topic at conferences right now. But it reminds me of when everyone used to ask about “the year of mobile” and then suddenly realised it had already happened four years ago. Machine learning is already with us in many different guises, and it’s going to be a profound change.

The algorithms we are using to buy ads tune themselves, they get better by recording and self-adjusting. We’re taking advantage of technology that didn’t exist three or four years ago – using cloud-based systems to analyse data sets at incredible speeds to improve performance.

This won’t be the entirety of ad buying, but it will be a significant part of the industry. I’d urge marketers not to get left behind, to dip their toes in now.