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Programmatic Ad Buying: And Now a Word From Our Sponsors

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“The most basic implementation involves associating an ad tag URL to a given playback slot such as pre-roll, midroll, and post-roll within your video player ad configuration,” he says. “Then the SSP normally delivers a VPAID creative that manages the ad decisioning and tracking on the client side.”

VPAID, or video player-ad interface definition, is a set of industry standards developed with the IAB for communications between the in-stream video ad and the video player, informing the video player about control information and reporting how the user interacts. If a player isn’t programmed to accept VPAID ads, the ad cannot be executed, according to an IAB guideline. More often, however, there is a surplus of VPAID tags used by everyone involved.

Originally, VPAID was promoted to track user interactivity. But VPAID tags are being used for something different than what was originally intended. “Everyone in the chain is delivering their piece with VPAID. It goes through the whole stack with each company in the chain using it because it gives them the most information. The main consequence is the ad takes forever to deliver,” says Rifkin. You’ll see a VPAID, wrapped in a VPAID, wrapped in a VPAID—it slows the experience down for the end user and is often responsible for that blank screen while your video waits for an ad.

The future standard VAST 4.0 (video ad-serving template) should address some of this problem. “VAST is a video ad-serving template for structuring ad tags that serve ads to video players. Using an XML schema, VAST transfers important metadata about an ad from the ad server to a video player,” according to IAB guidelines. Rifkin says he anticipates VAST 4.0 will address the VPAID loop problem.

Other Technical Issues

There are many scenarios in which ad delivery can fail, especially in the context of programmatic fulfillment, where it’s difficult for an SSP to ensure quality for all of the DSP ad creatives it traffics.

“This is not always a matter of lack of attention to detail on the DSP side. There are changes in platforms, playback engines, and ad loaders that can create issues with ad creatives. This is even more apparent recently as the ad industry has finally started to shift over to HTML5-based creatives where things are less predictable then the relatively monolithic Flash platform,” says Dale.

“Publishers should employ quality of service (QoS) tools that can provide additional data points around ad success and failure in addition to working closely with their SSP to track ad failures,” he adds. Conviva and Youbora are two leaders in the space.


There are a number of measurement issues to be aware of—the first is the ad breaks themselves. The OTT industry still hasn’t settled on a de facto standard for signaling ad and program boundaries in HLS (HTTP live streaming) and DASH. Most dynamic ad insertion (DAI) providers still largely follow their own signaling specifications. Those who author content for OTT distribution expecting to be able to monetize midroll ads need to make sure their streams conform to their DAI provider’s specification.

“SCTE-35 is a DPI (digital program insertion) standard which broadcasters and MVPDs use to signal ad break and program boundaries in MPEG transport streams,” says Alex Zambelli, principal product manager at iStreamPlanet. “Anybody who is distributing live linear OTT content in North America is likely to run into SCTE-35 as the industry standard for ad signaling, so learning how to decode it and interpret it can be essential to monetizing live linear OTT streams.

“The encoding and packaging components have to ensure that the streams are properly conditioned for downstream ad insertion. That specifically means that the video encoder must insert IDR frames (key frames) into the video streams, and the packager must break up HLS segments at ad break boundaries,” says Zambelli.

Another measurement area is viewer numbers. The traditional broadcast workflow might have Nielsen watermarks in the streams to identify who is watching the ads. “When you replace broadcast ads with digital-only ads, those digital-only ads might not have the Nielsen watermark. You might need to go to whoever is providing the server-side ad insertion service and have them give you a report on which ads were delivered. So it makes the reporting a little bit trickier because it’s not all coming from one place,” says Zambelli.

“One of the most important and first uses of data in our opinion was the ability to score that data against a Nielsen demographic. There is $75 billion of TV ad money that moves around which is exclusively measured by Nielsen ad ratings,” says Rosenberg.

Roku has recently created a video advertising network. “We have something called the Roku ad framework,” says Rosenberg. “It’s an IAB VAST stack, but it also embeds a Nielsen digital ad rating solution. We are the only OTT platform in the ecosystem to do that. We use our registration data and a partnership with Nielsen to enable Nielsen to measure demography on Roku and embed two rich media interactive vendors, BrightLine and Innovid.” In this way, a publisher gets credit toward the demographic campaign it sold to an advertiser.

Server- or Client-Side Ad Insertion?

The age-old debate continues. Defeating ad blockers was originally a key value proposition of server-side ad insertion (SSAI). Recently, this is less of a unique value proposition, as viewership has shifted toward living room and mobile devices, where ad blockers are less common. “Additionally, robust client side tools with server ad proxies have emerged to address the ad block issue while retaining client-side interactive code in ad responses,” says Dale.

“It’s difficult to say if there’s an optimal approach,” says Zambelli. “The choice between client-side and server-side ad insertion is often dictated by workflow requirements and largely depends on which part of the workflow is willing or ready to take on the burden of performing ad insertion. From the perspective of consumer applications, server-side ad insertion is definitely easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be flawless.

“If the dynamic ad insertion is performed server-side (SSAI), applications need only limited ability to identify ad breaks for the purposes of constraining playback controls (or perform analytics). Applications performing client-side ad insertion, on the other hand, will need a very intimate understanding of how event boundaries are signaled in the media streams,” says Zambelli.

In its 2015 year-end report, FreeWheel said live streams were the fastest growing content segment, with a 129 percent year-over-year increase in ad views. Therefore, getting the live stream ad serving working is one of the more pressing areas to develop.

“Server-side ad insertion is ideal for live broadcast where frame accurate ad timing is important to the quality of experience, or in platforms and syndication contexts where no client side code can be run. In contrast, any time you can run client side ad insertion, it’s generally better to do so,” says Dale. “Programmatic fill logic is generally optimized against client-side creatives that run client-side code to better track users, manage fulfillment, provide interactive features, and better measure engagement.”

“The pros (of SSAI) are basically that it’s one seamless experience to the user; it’s not that slight delay that users are often frustrated by when there’s loading,” says Fenn. Obviously, no delay makes both viewers and publishers happy. “It’s a challenge from a standpoint of the buyers that are traditionally pixeling and monitoring for viewability, because the commercial breaks for these pods are not as easy to define as an actual ad call.”


A number of people I spoke with said they considered viewabilty to be table stakes. “The definition of viewability the Media Rating Council uses in the video space is at least 50 percent of pixels in view for at least 2 seconds in an active tab,” says Fenn. It’s hard to imagine a video using autoplay not being counted as a view based on this measurement. Using this viewability guideline, it sounds as if video advertising measurement is taking a few liberties.

There’s no polite way to put it: The online ad industry has had a history of fraud. In the Association of National Advertisers study, “The Bot Baseline: Fraud in Digital Advertising,” digital advertising security firm White Ops studied 5.5 billion impressions. Almost one-quarter (23 percent) of video impressions, twice as much as display ad impressions, came from bot traffic. Video impressions are big-ticket items compared with display ads, so it’s a natural target for illegal activity.

Bot traffic inflated audience monetization between 5 percent and 50 percent (depending on site measured) by pretending to be real users, moving mice over ads, putting items in shopping carts, and traveling around the web creating a phony digital trail. In short, bots make their traffic look like it comes from real people, whom publishers and advertisers covet. If you combine the viewability measurement and the bot traffic estimates, you could be hard-pressed to figure out an accurate measurement of your reach.

Looking to the Future

So how does the story continue? Individual programming, in which viewers will be able to program their own content experience, is on the horizon. Advertisers and publishers need to innovate to stay relevant in this new universe. The companies with the most accurate data will be ahead of the pack when it comes to having consumers respond to their ads. Data derived from contextually relevant user profiling puts brands and publishers in a much stronger position to create ads viewers want to watch.

Because so much is now known about viewers from their clickstreams, advertisers should have no excuse to display off-brand or repeated ads. If you know what a viewer does, what she buys, where she lives, what she watches, and what devices she watches on, that viewer will have a higher expectation of receiving a relevant ad experience. Any company not using its data to serve appropriate ads will have to fight hard to stay relevant and keep viewers from clicking to different content. If advertisers can’t get this right, maybe we should root for the bots.

This article originally ran in the June 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “And Now a Word From Our Sponsors.”

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