Should Agencies Use Ad Servers?

by Michael Hubbard on September 23, 2009

in Media

In the last few weeks, we’ve had a lot of traditional advertising agencies asking us about what the benefits of utilizing an ad server are. By now, almost every publisher large and small offers some form of ad serving, so why not just use their numbers and their ad servers and save yourself the monthly commitments, ad serving fees, ad operations man hours and more?

Well, here’s a few reasons why we utilize ad servers – in particular – MediaPlex’ MOJO AdServer (we also use Microsoft Atlas for some clients, and we’ve had great experiences with TruEffect’s Truadvertiser in the past as well):

1) Real Time Optimization. Publishers lay claim to optimizing, but we actually optimize daily in the ad server, and MOJO performs automatic near real-time optimization based on conversion data.

2) De-duplication of results. Because 3rd party cookies do not collect personal data, running ads independently on ad networks creates a lot of duplication in reporting. One network may register a click on a banner ad, and then the user clicks on another ad the next day but on someone else’s network and then converts (stay with me here :) ). Both networks will register that as a click conversion to their network. Ad servers will de-duplicate those and actually give credit only to the last clicked on ad for credit to the conversion.

3) Path to conversion (or Engagement Mapping). Analytics are great to track everything through the conversion, but it can not show the chronological order or list of events that took place to get to that conversion, as those items take place BEFORE the visitor hits your site. With Path to Conversion reporting, once that conversion happens, the ad servers will report back on every activity that took place from first interaction to conversion. For example, if a last click conversion is registered to YouTube.com, it will then run a report and show that prior to that conversion, the user saw a banner ad on the Ad.com network, then they saw another on Specific Media’s network, then they clicked on one again at Ad.com, and then finally they clicked and converted on the YouTube.com site. Although YouTube is important because it “closed the sale”, the others are just as important because they played a role in getting the user to the last step by creating awareness and interaction.

4) Auditing. Although we haven’t had problems in years, it’s still nice to have a 3rd party audit system to ensure that publishers are delivering what they say they are delivering.

5) Creative changes. Although we never expect emergencies, we always plan for them. For example, we had a client give us a wrong phone number on an ad once and we didn’t find out about it until after 5:00 on a Friday. Because we were ad serving, we were able to switch everything out immediately. Had we not been, we would have had to wait until Monday for the sales reps to get back in town, and hope that they could do it immediately.  Oh yeah, and we were serving over a billion ads a month for them – so imagine the nightmare a manual update would have been!

6) Serving large file sizes. Most users now have broadband internet, so the days of AOL dial up are few and far between. That being said, most networks still require banner sizes to be less than 35k. Ad servers allow you to deliver a 35k file size to the publishers yet serve much greater sizes through external server calls.

There are plenty more reasons – especially on the creative side of things, and I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts as well… Please note, we are due for our annual technology review in the upcoming month, so I will be sure to post our results to our blog when they are finalized. For those of you that don’t know – we don’t use just one ad server, we do reviews of all of the ad servers and then determine which ones meet our clients needs best.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Seth Hargrave Seth Hargrave September 24, 2009 at 8:50 am

I’d like to add #7 – Ad Scheduling. Depending on the scale and breadth of a campaign, the ability to schedule out creative rotations for multiple offers/ads in advance is HUGE. Considering we may not be available 24/7/365, the ability to schedule out a special holiday promotion or some other offer with specific timing is key.

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Jon Kenney September 24, 2009 at 10:11 am

Metrics,metrics,metrics. Sure you can get reporting sent to you, but nothing will replace the ability to pull custom reports yourself for immediate data analysis. In the interactive space we are privy to enormous amounts of campaign data and having something in house to track and correlate that data into usable metrics is critical to campaign performance.

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Ellie September 24, 2009 at 12:53 pm

I’ll offer another point to this: the client hired the agency – not the publisher. From 10 years of experience working in ad sales for publishers, I can tell you that ad sales teams work very hard to make the advertiser’s campaign work well IN HOPES that they will continue and spend more with a renewal campaign. The big HOWEVER to that statement, is that the publisher’s ad operations teams are rarely, if ever, incentivized financially to renew that campaign.

Agencies are incentivized to keep the client’s business. Knowing what I know from the publisher’s world, I lose sleep at night hoping that the publishers will work as hard as I do for my client/the advertiser. The client hired me based on what I said our agency would deliver and while I can put pressure on publishers to do the best they can for the program – I’m only comfortable when my team -the team that was hired – is in control of the data and has the power to make the necessary changes to the program. Middlemen = potential loss of control + potential degradation of communication. One could argue that ad agencies are middlemen – but because of the way we work and the tools we use to produce improved work everyday, none of our clients do! ;o)

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Chris MacDonald September 30, 2009 at 10:52 am

Third party ad serving from agencies causes blanket inefficiencies for publishers and is often more headache than it’s worth.
Personally, I’ve started turning away third party served campaigns even big campaigns from the biggest agencies. The amount of time that goes into reconciling the billing and making good impressions is just not worth it. The numbers NEVER match the local server and are ALWAYS showing underdelivery, which is suspect in itself.
1) Real Time Optimization. – Local publisher ad servers do this, too. If a publisher doesn’t optimize they end up with bad results metrics and get dropped from the campaign. This point is moot.
2) De-duplication of results. – You don’t need to third party serve all networks and publishers to track conversions. De-dup on the backside by comparing click results.
4.)Creative changes. – this is somewhat valid but the responsibility lies in the agency not to make mistakes in the creative. That’s sloppy and is the real cause.
6) Serving large file sizes. – If an agency sneaks in ads that violate IAB and publisher terms and conditions by exceeding file size restrictions, they’ve breached contract. This is sneaky and unethical.

i can’t stress how much work goes into reconciling billing, commissions, inventory, etc at the end of every month when the agency numbers don’t match the local ad server reports. It’s always lower delivery and lower revenue and results in the agency getting free impressions and the sales rep getting lower commission for no reason. The whole process of delivering ad campaigns could be efficient and less time consuming without this headache.

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Michael Hubbard Michael Hubbard September 30, 2009 at 11:58 am

Chris – this is great publisher side insight! I choose to disagree with a few points, but you are 100% correct with billing and delivery discrepancies. I think the problem lies more in the fact that the IAB allows for a 10% difference in reporting – when the reality is, we have someone here in charge of Ad Operations who makes sure from day 1 that our numbers are matching yours – that’s the point of the 3rd party audit. A lot of times the difference is attributed to how the different servers count impressions – but this is easily worked through if the agency and publisher work together from day one.

Now – to my disagreements :)

1) Yes, publishers have real time optimization, but they can’t optimize on client conversions based on multiple sites – only on last click conversion data (if the client agrees to place your pixel, and every other publishers pixel on their confirmation page) – therefore, your real-time optimizations your referencing are based on creative only – and possibly placement/targeting depending on how the order is set up.

2) What you are recommending doing is a manual process – why re-invent the wheel. Ad servers automatically dedupe and assign value to not only last-click but also view-through’s and any other touchpoint along the way. If someone clicks on an ad on your site and doesn’t convert, but then clicks on an ad on Google and does convert – the clients reports would show Google converted. We think your site should have gotten credit as well – but the only way to determine the order process and credit process is to have one standard reporting mechanism across all sites.

4)Creative changes. I always love this argument from publishers… “It’s not our site – it’s your creative”. Half the time you’re right, half the time you’re not – which is why we built an in-house design team focused on updating creative. But if I want to make a change to correct the under-performing creative, if I’m not using an ad server, I typically have to wait 24-48 hours for a publisher to put them into rotation. You may be different – but that’s a pretty good average across the board as sales reps are in the business of selling, not ad operations.

6) I’m not sure you understand how the technology works, as it’s actually pretty new. It’s not an ethical issue at all. Publishers require small file sizes so that when their pages load, they load quickly. The way the technology now works is that small file size is delivered so your page isn’t slowed down, and then once the page is loaded along with the banner, an external file call pulls in the larger portion. This eliminates any bad user experiences, keeps page load times fast, and keeps better image ads out there – which we all know is a necessity these days!

That being said – I think we’re still saying the same thing in the end… If you had more agencies that were willing to make it a seamless process with an end that didn’t create logistical nightmares, you’d probably appreciate their benefits as much as I do. That being said – I love hearing the publisher perspective – so please keep the comments coming!

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