Ad operations is among the most dreary topics in digital marketing. That is, until you start hearing tales of campaigns gone awry. Then it quickly becomes the most horrifying. Consider the following examples of waste and lost opportunity caused by ad ops errors.
Joe Apprendi, CEO of Collective Media, tells the story of a large advertiser who worked with comScore to determine what percentage of its ad buy was reaching its target audience: U.S. women, aged 18 to 49. The answer, according to Apprendi, was 10 percent, with much of the waste caused by impressions outside the U.S. making their way into the ad buy, he said.
Joelle Gropper Kaufman, VP, marketing and media operations at vertical ad network firm Adify, describes a recent insertion order in which an agency provided flawed ad tags for a client campaign. She said Adify's ad operations staff quickly notified the agency that the ad hadn't generated any impressions, but the firm did not reply to the information or fix the tag that day or the next. On the third day, Adify's ad ops staffers went ahead and fixed the code themselves.
In another incident, Gropper Kaufman said an East Coast advertiser, a firm with a highly regional focus and a product (mattresses) too large to be shipped, placed a large ad buy but accidentally neglected to add geographic targeting to the insertion order, generating potentially massive amounts of waste as ads were delivered to non-prospects elsewhere in the U.S. and beyond.
Research from ComScore indicates only a minority -- often a small minority -- of campaign impressions reach their intended audience with the desired frequency. Of eight U.S. brand campaigns with budgets between $400,000 and $2 million, ComScore said none reached more than 20 percent of their target with a frequency of four impressions or less. Even if you include impressions where frequency exceeded four, none of the campaigns cracked 40 percent for on-target delivery. The remainder of impressions, in some cases upward of 80 percent of a campaign's buy, were delivered either to the wrong segments in the U.S., or to consumers outside the U.S.
"Rather than screaming about clicks and conversions, brand advertisers should be screaming about waste," said Gropper Kaufman. "Mistakes happen. It's the job of ad ops to just think."
Unfortunately, that job requirement is beyond some people on the buy side, as is evidenced by these and other anecdotes.
A number of factors are to blame, including a lack of standards in ad operations and confused agency staff who must manage long lists of site and network relationships. Additionally, even when agency buyers correct ad coding and other mistakes, errors in insertion orders are exacerbated when ad networks sub out those buys to other ad networks, a common practice. In such cases, even when a problem is fixed, the fix is not passed along to downstream networks and publishers.
"The agencies are all in fire-drill mode," said Rob Beeler, VP of content for AdMonsters, an association of ad operations professionals. "It's hard to get them to stop, sit down, and figure out the issues."
Publishers and marketers have begun taking baby steps to improve efficiency and quality control in ad ops. The Interactive Advertising Bureau and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As) have begun working together to develop standards for the use of insertion orders and other business documents, as well as to resolve rampant campaign discrepancies. Additionally, the 4As and the Association of National Advertisers are pushing an identification system for creative assets, called Ad-ID, that's intended to ease the process of ad placement and measurement in all channels. Online ad operations firm Theorem is backing the Ad-ID system "to raise awareness of the need to improve online advertising coding."
Ed Montes, regional manager for Havas Digital in North America, says the problem would be greatly helped by the creation of such standards.
"I see ad ops and the issues with ad ops as friction in the marketplace," he said. "Before you start trafficking into the ad servers, the fact that there's very little standardizatoin across the board, that is where agencies [face problems]."
Montes says Havas invests considerable resources and time in training its staff in multiple ad servers. And he said the havoc created by ad ops errors don't stop with waste. "It all starts with the ad serving," he said. "If that's not right, anything you want to do from an analytics standpoint is off."
According to Montes, buy-side technology still doesn't exist to create effective campaigns that reliably reach their target audience.
"There's not one solid system that takes you from the planning side into the order-entry side," he said. "There are things...that can help you with the RFP, but that either doesn't tie in with your billing system or ties in very weakly. From planning to billing, there's not a fantastic system."
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
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