The State of Video Ad Tech 2021
"Preferably, we would like to have them all bundled into the same stream and not being inserted as a sidetrack," says Westbroek. "But in the end, the packaging solution takes care of the proper insertion in an HLS [HTTP Live Streaming] or DASH manifest."
"In terms of SCTE-35, we see a bunch of different ways to signal cue markers—inline via manifests, in-band as part of the content segments, simple cue-outs with timestamp and duration, and SCTE-35 binary messages containing splice_insert and time_signal data. SSAI solutions must be able to handle these variations of ad marker signaling," says Seeliger. "The use of MPEG-DASH has continued to increase, and multi-period DASH is the predominant technique to create and serve SSAI-enabled DASH manifest." So we've barely gotten started, and you've likely already picked a side: SSAI or CSAI. DASH or HLS. Automated or manual SCTE insertion. Inline or sidecar.
Going Low Latency
The ad-insertion system will make a call to an ad server, which calls an SSP (supply-side platform, where a publisher sells available space). That SSP may make a call to a DSP (demand-side platform, where an advertiser goes to buy space), and that cycle can be repeated until the ad pod is filled. "We have about 3 seconds to do that, using chunk sizes between 4 and 6 seconds. If you go to a very-low-latency stream where you use either smaller-sized chunks or chunks that contain sub-GOP, you have less time for all those processes, and that's problematic. Then you need to do something different, like some sort of pre-fetch or something that's technologically much more complicated," says Fisher.
It's possible that younger viewers who have lived much of their lives online don't pay attention to the slates displayed when an ad slot goes unfilled, but all businesses do because they're a sign of leaving money on the table. Wurl found that 30% of ad requests are phantoms pings created by channel surfers. "They make the ad requests, and then they move away. They're just there long enough so that we can't figure out that they're channel zappers," says Fisher.
"There's a ton of moving pieces in advertising. One of the big reasons it's more difficult [than in the content stream] is that you don't control as much of the ad tech ecosystem," says Dworin. "You are reaching out into both programmatic and non-programmatic ad servers on the buy side in order to fill things. You're relying on them managing creatives, different renditions, resolutions, and all of these different pieces. Any sort of breakdown in that system can cause latency or errors for you that you don't control." One step has been to move both content and ads to the edge. "By making sure that the ads are also pushed further out and working across multiple delivery networks, that's helped to reduce latency there too," says Dworin.
While no one else in my interviews brought up ad fraud as being a top focus, the IAB Tech Lab identifies it as something that still is very much an issue. "Ad fraud is an area that is important to keep an eye on as programmatic advertising grows on the CTV front. We view transparency as one of the key mechanisms to fight ad fraud," says Shetty. "We recently released an update to app-ads.txt to help. This, combined with sellers.json and SupplyChain Object, provides transparency around the entities involved in a transaction and helps reduce the opportunities for fraud."
As OTT platforms expand and more and more viewers tune in, ad tech has evolved in a number of ways to address the vexing issue of scale.
The nature of programmatic ad buying has changed. In the past, it was a real-time bidding for remnant inventory, but now, the same technology is being used to optimize yield. "I think we're going to see programmatic pipes be used in a lot of new ways. So, for instance, programmatic guaranteed or private marketplaces that are different than the Wild West open exchange, but are more set up towards automated buying and selling with trusted parties on both sides. That gives people the opportunity to use data or control campaign delivery in the way that they want to," says Dworin.
"We've gotten to seven figures of concurrent streamers," says Wilichinsky. "Ad tech still can't handle large-scale events without timeouts or stuff falling over." Personalized ads, all sourced quickly from different vendors, are rarely set up to handle that kind of traffic. Cloud infrastructure isn't configured to handle that kind of load out of nowhere. "A lot has moved to the cloud for a lot of companies, which is great. But if you don't do that right, it still can't handle getting hit 500,000 times within a second," according to Wilichinsky. He says the solution is to be more efficient, finding tools and partnerships around automation, because throwing bodies at a problem isn't a formula for long-term success.
In addition to the many technical challenges, several areas need work in order for real scale to be achieved. While some may complain about the format of the standard 15- and 30-second broadcast advertising spots, it is a familiar format that has been trafficked for a long time. The early promise of digital was more interactivity. In specific cases, these interactive ads work well, but they can be very expensive to create because they require the custom development that's akin to CSAI requirements. "Running these ads is not easy," says Wilichinsky, who has worked on interactive ads for a CBS Super Bowl broadcast. "To make this even more complicated, half the time, it's server-side ad insertion, and then you layer content on top of the video player, so you're kind of doing client side and server side."
A number of my interviewees mentioned the pause ad, which comes up when a viewer stops playback, as one they think is very effective and unobtrusive. Roku has used it for quite some time and has seen positive results. Parampath says that the company has also experimented in-house or partnered with various companies to try out other formats. Because Roku is in the enviable position of being a platform with a home screen to sell, it has created a number of placements and offers it can provide to either broadcasters or brands, including content sponsorships that request viewers to watch an ad in exchange for free content, interactive choices in which viewers choose the type of ad they want to watch, and coupons for product discounts within an ad.
"Getting a consistent quality experience and reporting is still an issue for some customers. Clients still [need] to get the basics in place before we can start talking about advanced ad tech," says Svensson. "They believe it's a mature standard, as mature as the rest of the technology, so they don't need to focus on it. The market is still not really mature."
Newsy has always sold advertising via programmatic. "For us, it's really about not necessarily having one streamlined ad stack, but rather having many different ad stacks that are tailored to each platform and really just trying to maximize the revenue that we can make on each platform," says Brown.
Newsy has focused on working through its ad stack, identifying where problems develop, and seeing how to remedy things. "It's really about optimizing yield with our partners. Looking into the waterfall at every step of the way and taking out stuff that's taking too long and focusing more on the stuff that's happening quickly," says Brown.
"There's a big opportunity to build tooling that helps you to diagnose and start to remediate a lot of those errors," says Dworin. "One of the reasons I think that's going to be a big trend [in 2021] is that as people are launching more and more ad-supported services, ad experience is one of the ways that people are going to differentiate, and the buy side is also going to become much more sophisticated about what their requests are."
Excuses won't fly anymore, and the broadcast environment is heading toward getting better at targeting at the same time digital is having to reboot. In the never-ending competition for viewers, fixing the ad experience should now be a top priority.
Sinclair Broadcasting's STIRR brings viewers free, live, local broadcasts—along with localized ads. The implementation is still buggy, but the concept is right on target.
OTT advertising technology is at a crossroads, as brands work to build relationships with consumers without alienating them. Here's a look at some of biggest questions facing the ad tech industry, along with some possible answers.
With new policies from Apple and Google giving more control to consumers, advertisers need to turn away from third-party data to build user profiles
Here's how five industry experts are finding their way through the complicated world of advertising technology.
It's time to move beyond our outdated, Web 1.0 approach to advertising and embrace stateful ad podding. The future of connected television depends on it.
As ad-supported OTT services grow, the video engineering world needs to understand the complicated advertising technology landscape.
Companies and Suppliers Mentioned