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A woman looks at the screen of her iPhone in this file photo.Anna Bryukhanova

Advertisers are tired of paying for ads that nobody actually sees. And in a push to win more of their business, a media agency that buys ad space on their behalf is implementing new standards to guarantee their investments.

Media buying and planning firm GroupM Canada announced on Tuesday that starting immediately, all the publishers from whom it buys digital ad space will have to comply with stricter guarantees for what is known as "viewability" – an increasingly important metric in the industry.

All deals that GroupM signs, starting from Jan. 1 this year, now must include a guarantee that digital ads must be on the screen and within view (not requiring the user to scroll down) for at least one second in order to count as "viewable." For video ads, at least half of the video must be played, and the viewer actually has to press play – auto-play videos that start up when a page loads or when a user scrolls past them don't count – and the sound must be on.

The agency, which is owned by British-based WPP Group PLC, announced a similar standard in Australia two weeks ago and expects to roll out the standard globally. The U.S. offices are furthest ahead on the initiative to build viewability into their deals, by about a year.

Advertisers have been pushing for stricter standards for some time.

"It's really become the hot issue in terms of digital media, and at the moment, it's almost more important than the rate [advertisers] pay for certain placements," Neil Johnston, chief trading officer of GroupM Canada, said in an interview. "In order to do business with GroupM clients, there's now a minimum standard that is required. … It's much tougher than the industry standard."

One industry standard was developed by the Media Rating Council, a New York-based group that accredits companies that measure the effectiveness of ads, and help advertisers understand what impact their campaigns have had. The MRC, along with an industry group called Making Measurement Make Sense, created a standard that stipulated at least 50 per cent of the pixels of an ad must be visible, for at least one second, to count as "viewable." But some marketers have said publicly that this is not strict enough.

"I don't think any media company set out to charge for something that isn't being seen," Mr. Johnston said. "But in digital media, because the [prices charged for ad space] are so much lower, people weren't keeping quite as close an eye on it."

GroupM has some "preferred partners" that have already agreed to uphold the standards, including Quebecor, Rogers, Yahoo, AutoTrader and The Globe and Mail. Other publishers will come into compliance on a deal-by-deal basis, as the company signs new agreements.

Viewability is a somewhat different problem than advertising fraud, another preoccupation for the industry. Fraud involves the use of bots that mimic human activity on the Web, to look like people are visiting pages where no traffic exists, to draw advertisers to pay for ad space there.

Aside from fraud, when advertisers talk about viewability, they are mainly concerned simply with the placement of ads on Web pages that aren't adequately placed so that a user actually sees them for a reasonable amount of time.

"Largely, we're transferring the standards that we take for other media, for digital," Mr. Johnston said. "On television, we don't pay for half a commercial."

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