Ad Serving Woes, Foes, and Knows

Amidst all the industry fallout and churn, it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on in the land of third-party ad serving. As a buyer of online media for many years, let me first say that I’m a huge proponent of tracking and analysis. However, we’ve had a couple of recent incidents that make me wonder when the heck the almighty ad-serving companies will start acting like they’re on our side. I know this article will probably spawn all sorts of flame emails. Keep in mind, I’m not against the technology; I’m frustrated by the lack of custom service and by the ever-changing added fees.

Although the bulk of our time is spent online, be it the Web or email, accessing a real person once in a while would be nice. Typically, when you have a problem with a campaign, you have to log in a case to an email address. Many times, you’ll get a different person answering each email. Often, you won’t understand what the heck the answer means. What then? Do you log in another case illustrating not only one but two dilemmas? Will the same person answer the second time? Probably not.

Because we are an ad agency and not a technology company, we do not have proprietary software to steward our impressions and provide analysis and tracking tools. As a result, we are ad-server agnostic. (More simply said: We don’t play favorites.) We are constantly reviewing such companies and their capabilities. This takes a tremendous amount of time — unbillable time. As I’m sure you know, we don’t want to be wasting unbillable time.

I recently asked several comrades in an email group to share their experiences with me. What do we want? What keeps us up at night? Here’s what I found out:

  • Most agencies bill third-party ad-serving costs as a pass-through.
  • Most of us have contracts built on a sliding scale based on impression levels. For example, we may be billed a $0.50 cost per thousand (CPM) initially. Once we hit a minimum impression level, the rate may go down to $0.45 CPM.
  • We want information that surpasses impressions served versus delivered, clicks, and click-through rates (CTRs).
  • We love filters such as targeting by standard industrial classification (SIC) code, day part, and the like.
  • We hate filters when there is a large margin of error.
  • Bonus or value-add inventory is always a problem. Many times, the sites don’t pull down the tags, thus causing additional ad-serving fees.
  • We choose an ad-serving company based on a variety of needs. Accuracy, cost, and service top the list.
  • Lately, we are finding a large percentage of discrepancies between the site’s data and the ad-serving data.
  • Many of us don’t use the media planning tools offered by these companies.
  • It’s been hard to keep up with companies that closed, merged, and were spun off.
  • We all have experienced poor customer service.
  • We want to incorporate branding studies, but it’s often hard to sell to clients.
  • We all seem to have a favorite.
  • We are all searching for new, better ways to track campaigns and optimize accordingly.
  • No one seems to be able to really optimize on the fly.
  • Due to all the mergers, many of us were left treading water as these companies streamlined their technologies.
  • “Centralized” campaign management is fragmented.

I’d like to save you the research time and give you the scoop on this industry soap opera. These companies have been around for a while now:

  • DoubleClick started serving ads in 1996. The company created DART in 1998 and is still a big player in the industry. L90 recently sold its ad-serving technology, adMonitor, to DoubleClick, and DoubleClick has said it will migrate current customers over to its own technology — either DART or AdServer.
  • AdKnowledge was founded in 1995. Engage gobbled up its infrastructure not too long ago. To confuse the issue further, a tiny start-up called Bluestreak recently bought the AdKnowledge technology (RIP).
  • Mediaplex, which is being acquired by cost-per-click ad network ValueClick, sold off its media customer base but kept ad-serving tools and recently acquired Interadnet.
  • The venerable MatchLogic, once a part of now-bankrupt Excite@Home, also shut its doors as its troubled parent struggled to shed noncore businesses.
  • Real Media has mostly concentrated on an in-house ad-serving systems for publishers, but it recently began to roll out a third-party application service provider (ASP) product it calls Open Advertiser, which is aimed at agencies and advertisers.
  • A new company, Poindexter Systems, launched recently. The company defines its technology as mass customization software.
  • Dynamic Logic offers ad awareness studies for a fee.

I’m sure I missed a couple of the smaller players.

The amount of feedback I received from planners was seemingly endless; however, the issues listed above were the common threads. I’m sure as time goes on, I’ll get more feedback from readers to share. For now, let’s just assess the issue in the simplest form: Agencies/planners are struggling to find customized solutions for their respective clients. Standardization is still the Holy Grail. So speak up! What are your woes, foes, and knows?

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