There are lots of reasons to be excited about what’s happening in the ad technology world right now from a business point of view, but from an Ad Ops perspective, the current landscape is pretty daunting. For lots of folks at the implementation level, ad technology often means more integration projects, more complexity, more relationships to manage, and frankly, more work to pack into the day with the same amount of resources. There are lots of tools and services being built for advertisers and publishers alike, but where’s the innovation for Ops teams on either side?
To date, with perhaps the exception of tag management solutions, I haven’t seen many products that seek to simplify the operational process for the direct sales channel – most everything seems focused on creating new, more complex products or bringing new, automated sales channels to market. Those are fine goals, but I would submit that much like the years of neglect around resolving 3rd party discrepancies, the ad tech community has to date ignored a huge potential opportunity to make life easier for Ad Ops teams. In the past few weeks, however it seems like that may be about to change.
Specifically, during IAB Ops 2011, Adobe announced their entry into the ad validation space with some fanfare, throwing some much needed attention and hopefully some serious resources on a little known service with tremendous possibilities but few solutions. For those interested in learning more, I hope you’ll read my new series on the ad validation space to explain the need, the current solutions, and where the space looks to be headed in the future.
Why Does Ops Need Ad Validation?
As a standard practice, publishers review the ads that marketers want to run before they are put in front of an audience. This is true for traditional print and television publishers as much as it is digital publishers. Most media outlets won’t allow marketers to swear in their ads, for example, but beyond content, publishers of every type have what is called an ad spec. The ad spec details the format in which advertisers have to use for their ads. For print ads, the ad spec covers things like colors, and dimensions; for television the spec might cover length, volume limits, and other technical aspects.
For digital publishers however the ad spec tends to get far more complex, covering not only basic details like ad dimensions, but also highly technical aspects such as framerate, peak CPU usage, animation cycles, clicktag formats, actionscript behavior, and allowable external dependencies. For every piece of creative or ad tag that comes in, publishers have to check the ad against their spec, running down a long checklist, gobbling up hours and hours of time ensuring that the marketer’s ad is in line with what the company’s predefined limits to protect the user experience on their site. The process is important, but so arduous, that plenty of publishers only check a handful of characteristics, if they have a QA process in place at all.
As any trafficker can tell you, the amount of time and energy wasted on ad tag QA is just silly at this point, and that’s just for the tags that will actually meet spec. Find a tag that breaks a publisher’s creative guidelines, and a protracted battle begins between the publisher’s sales team, the agency, and other outside vendors that can last weeks or months, delaying campaigns, and costing everyone time and money. The sales team always prefers to simply make an exception, so as not to bother the agency, and in some cases it can make sense. The agency also tends to want the publisher to make an exception, and in some cases demands it, either because it will cost them money to rework the ad, or it will take so much time that it isn’t worth the trouble for the money they plan to spend with the publisher. At the end of the day, the publisher has to weight these consequences against upsetting their users by possibly burdening them with ads that take a long time to load, interrupt the rest of the content, or are just obnoxious or annoying.
Beyond the direct sales channel, as exchange-based demand has ramped up, publishers have less visibility on what runs on their site from an ad spec perspective than ever before. Is a creative breaking a frame rate limitation? What is the CPU usage to load the ad? Are the click tags working and coded properly? These are questions that no SSP or ad exchange will ask a publisher, let alone try to monitor and control. Surely, there’s a better way, and ad validation technology just might be the answer.
How Does Ad Validation Help?
Quite simply, ad validation seeks to automate the QA process of checking ad tags against a publisher spec, saving publishers the time and effort to check all tags, allowing them to focus on problems instead. These tools can measure a laundry list of qualities, everything from ad size dimensions to decompiling a flash file to inspect the clicktag format, and determine if the click tracker is functional. While there are a number of browser plugins that can assist toward this end such as HTTP Watch or Firebug, but to my knowledge there are currently only two standalone tools built for ad validation – AdValidation, which is an independent company fairly established in the space, and Adobe’s Project Adthenticate, which is the new, but promising given Adobe’s importance and influence on the Flash technology.