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How to make the video ad ecosystem work for the many, not the few


Ad Tech Attention Video
Ad Tech Attention Video

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US digital video spend is set to reach $93 billion this year, taking the lion’s share of ad budget. In such a booming and fast-evolving space, the challenge for the video ad industry is twofold, writes ShowHeroes' Ilhan Zengin

First, we have to create a fair and transparent taxonomy that delivers value for buyers and sellers of all sizes across a complex ecosystem. Secondly, we must prioritise a new, user-centric calibre of ad experience; one that elevates the needs and interests of its audience as a core performance metric. 

IAB Tech Lab took an important step towards creating a more balanced video ecosystem last year when it unveiled its new set of guidelines. However, faced with feedback that its narrow definitions would preclude 90% of existing inventory from qualifying as instream, it responded by wiring in more flexibility.

While another welcome step in the right direction, more work is needed to capture the link between video ad formats and the realities of our current watching environments. Here’s how IAB Tech Lab, and the video ecosystem as a whole, can aim for more:

The question of audio

In its updated taxonomy, IAB Tech Lab has shifted somewhat from its previous position on sound, acknowledging that audibility “can’t be the sole criteria” defining an instream ad; not least due to Chrome’s auto-muting of most video players.

However, the more pertinent issue is why should audio be counted at all? These days, 75% of videos are played on mobile devices; nearly all with sound off. Moreover, that figure climbs steadily higher with video’s most prolific audience – millennials and Gen Z consumers. 

Equally, one of the major principles of a new-look digital ad industry centres around the need to become more inclusive and diverse. Yet, making audio a deciding factor of whether an ad is premium or not does not take into account the experience of around 48 million Americans who live with deafness or some form of hearing loss. 

It’s good to see IAB Tech Lab adding an “explicit demonstrated intent to watch the video” as another criteria for the updated instream category. This clause is a nod to the type of privacy-friendly, high attention and contextually relevant experience we all want to create, as the golden standard of new-era video ads. 

A good video ad is, by definition, one that a consumer wants to watch because it aligns with their interests at a given point in time. Yet the addition could benefit from the recognition that access to audio doesn’t necessarily signal this intention. Instead, quality, attention and relevance should take centre stage.

An uneven playing field

IAB Tech Lab has signalled further adaptability with the creation of a new “accompanying content” category, enabling a greater range of bidding value between videos that run alongside content in some form, and those that are standalone.

This may help in eeking out additional revenue for smaller, independent publishers who cannot qualify for the top-tier instream classification. Yet still, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of a taxonomy whereby scarce, overpriced instream inventory weighs in favour of platform giants such as YouTube.

Meanwhile, independent publishers around the world risk being frozen out from video’s most lucrative ad format. This comes despite their hallmark of journalistic content – a natural breeding ground for deep-seated audience engagement.

With instream ads commanding significantly higher rates than their outstream equivalents, a greater sense of visibility over ROI is key for buyers; especially given digital’s legacy of spammy, low-quality video ads. 

But resetting the needle shouldn’t cleave a gap between monetisation and compelling storytelling; the very quality that could galvanise brands, consumers and the industry at large. 

Reshaping the instream framework

IAB Tech Lab’s latest rejig on video classifications show that it is listening to feedback from the ad tech world; and that alone is meaningful. It’s also helpful to have a broader structure of categorisations to choose from, in recognition of the many complexities that bubble beneath today’s video market landscape. 

However, my view is that any taxonomy we move ahead with must be both simple and refined enough to reflect the reality of user behaviours. A stronger framework would be to split the instream category into two: long primary instream and short primary instream. 

  1. Long primary instream reflects lean-back scenarios where consumers immerse themselves in TV-like digital video entertainment, with a focus on mostly long-form content
  2. Short primary instream, meanwhile, signals web surfing situations whereby consumers are dipping into multiple short-form videos across different channels. It’s an ideal setting for intelligent ad tech to serve contextually relevant brand messaging in a seamless way

The high attention rates and subsequent user engagements that this strategy derives is proof in itself of audience intention; the results speak for themselves. At a time when all eyes are on the carbon footprint of streaming video, it’s an approach that minimises inventory wastage, too, by placing ads in the most compatible settings possible. 

The real value of a video ad should be measured in how attuned it is to audience interests and preferences. Instream categories alone cannot make the difference here; but allowing a greater breadth of definition will allow brands to better support the kind of world-class user experience that should be our signature in a new age of ad tech.

By Ilhan Zengin, CEO


ShowHeroes is a global leader in digital video, offering content, tech, and advertising solutions.

As a co-publisher to leading online media outlets, the company upholds editorial excellence across a network of over 6000 websites, promoting quality journalism from the most reliable information and entertainment sources.

With a privacy-first approach, ShowHeroes’ cookieless solutions, such as contextual and semantic targeting technology, paired with matched video content, drive value and relevance for both users and advertisers.

Founded in 2016 by Ilhan Zengin, Mario Tiedemann, and Dennis Kirschner with headquarters in Berlin, the company launched ShowHeroes Group in 2020.

Composed of its core brand ShowHeroes, production entity ShowHeroes Studios, performance marketing solutions provider Agon Digital, SaaS video solution Viralize, and The Digital Distillery, a networking event and content platform, the group employs more than 450 people worldwide with operations in 29 strategic hubs throughout Europe, LATAM, and the US.

Deloitte recognizes ShowHeroes Group as one of the 50 fastest-growing technology companies in Germany, winning the "Technology Fast 50" prize in 2021 and 2022. 

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Posted on: Monday 15 May 2023