As a standard practice in interactive advertising, advertisers and publishers maintain independent ad servers to manage their campaigns. There are number of reasons and efficiencies each party gains with this approach, but since each party counts an impression at a slightly different point in the delivery of an ad (publishers count at the ad request, advertisers count when the ad is delivered), the reporting from either system never matches the other. This difference is called a 3rd party discrepancy, and unfortunately, they’re a fact of life in digital advertising. While you can take steps to minimize discrepancies to a certain extent, at the end of the day you’re just going to have to put up with them as a cost of doing business.
Generally speaking though, discrepancies between your local ad server and a 3rd party ad server shouldn’t exceed 5 – 10%. Every now and again however you’ll find a particular campaign that skyrockets into the 30% territory or more. In those cases, you really need to look into the campaign and try to correct the problem. Below are some initial steps to take to try and resolve large discrepancies. Integrate this process into your Ad Ops group and you should be able to address a majority of the problem tags you encounter. Get your discrepancy checklist here…
It’s a sad fact that after more than a decade of innovation and growth in the digital display business, virtually nothing has been done to address the cost of 3rd party discrepancies on the industry. As I detailed in my post on how 3rd party ad serving works, because Publisher ad servers and Marketer ad servers count an impression at a different point in the technical process, there is always a variance in the numbers, and reconciling those figures to cut an invoice is a manual, time-consuming process, and a huge administrative cost on the industry. Discrepancies are typically around 10%, but can often exceed this, especially if there is a technical problem with the ad. In virtually all cases however, publishers simply have to accept losses due to discrepancies as the cost of doing business.
Third party ad servers have never made it easy to address this issue. Their publisher reporting tools are woefully inadequate and in some cases comically inefficient. For example, the leading ad server, DoubleClick’s DART product, does not provide site level reports for publishers that allows them to see everything running on their site from that ad server, but only allows publishers to get reports advertiser-by-advertiser. That means billing departments on every major online publisher spend days pulling hundreds of reports every month out of Dart alone. That means for most operations folks, a centralized reporting database that maps 3rd party delivery to local ad server delivery at the creative or flight level and updates automatically is practically a holy grail.
The Industry’s Response: An Impression Exchange
The IAB has recommended their own solution to address the matter via the Impression Exchange project, but I find the project fundamentally flawed. For one, the technical process the IAB uses to centralize impression reporting between systems adds another call in the ad serving process and so creates a discrepancy on the discrepancy it reports. Additionally, it has been very slow to win adoption by the ad servers – a year and a half in and DART is the only ad server currently on board.
Ad-Juster, The Superior Solution
A far better solution is for publishers to look at a company called Ad-Juster, which has created a way to centralize third party reports and map third party delivery against their internal flights down to the creative level. Ad-Juster has essentially mapped the schema for every ad server reporting system, figured out how to pull large data dumps from every major third party ad server on a regular basis and map it with a unique identifier back to the third party tag running on a publisher’s local ad server. In other words, it allows them to create a unified database across lots of systems. While the system is just a read-only version of the reporting you can get yourself, the speed and automation it brings to the table is very compelling for any large publisher.
Ad-Juster offers some canned reports that actually calculate the discrepancy between systems as well as some helpful filters that automatically email you a discrepancy report on flights that launched in the last three or five days for example, which allows operations staff to quickly catch implementation or technical issues. Since you can monitor the entire network on a regular basis, it is easy to adjust the padding that most publishers add to client goals to makeup for an expected discrepancy. You may very well find that some third parties track closer than others, so you can reduce the padding for those campaigns. The reports are a boon to operations folks, but also extremely useful for billing departments. Now the billing staff doesn’t have to spend all their time waiting in an ancient publisher-facing ad server UIs, they can push bills to clients faster.
The system isn’t perfect, especially if you run the same third party tags in multiple flights (the system can have a hard time attributing the right amount of third party impressions at the flight level in that case), but in most cases it offers tremendous benefits. Recently Ad-Juster has partnered with Solbright and Fattail to push their data into those workflow systems, but they also offer an API for clients that want to push the data to proprietary systems.
Highly recommended for large publishers seeking reporting relief.
At first glance it might seem confusing why Publishers and Marketers both maintain their own Ad Servers. After all, what’s the point of forcing a browser to make so many trips across the internet, bouncing from Ad Server to Ad Server when technically all you need is a single Ad Server to deliver an ad?
The answer is mostly convenience, but also so Marketers and Publishers can audit each other when it comes time to bill.
Ad Servers are convenient because they allow Publishers and Marketers to centralize the nuts and bolts of getting an ad on a web page. If a Marketer bought media across ten different sites for example, without and ad server every time they wanted to change their creative assets they would have to talk to ten different publishers. Not only that, but when it came time to report on how well their campaigns did, they would have to compile ten different data sources into a single report. For a sophisticated marketer advertising multiple products to multiple audiences with multiple messages, this quickly becomes unmanageable and is distasteful from the start.
However, with an Ad Server, a Marketer can update their creative in a single place, whenever they want, and do so without needing to contact a publisher. Moreover, they can pull reporting on-demand from one place that uses the same tracking methodology.
Publishers maintain an Ad Server for the same reasons – they have multiple clients running multiple creatives for varying amounts and with different targeting requirements. Publishers also want a single source for reporting, and where they can efficiently track that they are delivering on schedule so they can bill clients in full.
Lastly, separate Ad Servers allow both parties to maintain their own independent set of reports. This forces both parties to rely on the technology when it comes time to bill rather than each others honesty. Of course, using two Ad Server that count at different times, even milliseconds apart creates the possibility for Ad Serving Discrepancies, the bane of Publishers and Marketers alike.