Do you hear that? It's the sound of millions of individual video ad creatives flying around between ad servers, SSPs, and DSPs at any given moment. These carefully crafted marketing messages flitter in and out of digital properties countless times a day — but their path into a consumer's consciousness takes many twists and turns.
Publishers focused on premium video face many challenges when they attempt to wrangle the herd of creatives all vying for placement on apps and websites.
For the rest of this article, an ad "creative" refers to the video file played back to a user. The video file relays the brand's message or advertisement (in traditional TV—speak, it's a commercial).
Playing back ad creatives sounds easy enough. You receive a video file, play it, then inform everybody who wants to know what happened — if only it were that simple.
Premium publishers are hyper-sensitive to any content they display to end-users, especially advertising content produced by third parties. Publishers focused on delivering a pristine digital experience must maintain technical and content standards out of respect for their users and products.
In this article, you will learn about the following:
- Why publishers must concern themselves with ad creatives
- How to extract and understand programmatic video ad creatives
- The creative controls publishers use to manage their business
The importance of programmatic creative management extends beyond video into display advertising — but this article will focus on video, the side of advertising where I have spent the bulk of my career.
Let's begin with the "why." Why do publishers care so much about programmatic ad creatives?
There are several challenges publishers must consider when dealing with the mountain of ad creatives flowing through programmatic channels. I have provided a list of potential concerns publishers may need to address regarding creatives, along with brief explanations below.
First and foremost, publishers must consider the standards they set themselves. All publishers will have a set of advertising standards they follow, and they must ensure that each creative adheres to these standards.
Publishers typically enforce two types of standards: content standards and technical standards.
Content standards dictate the content contained within the ad, like what an advertiser sells, how they sell it, and the inclusion of proper disclosures / legal requirements.
Some video publishers may not want alcohol ads, others may not want scantily clad models selling beer, and most TV networks don't even want to show any human consuming that beer. But if a publisher does allow alcohol ads, the advertiser needs to make sure to include required legal disclosures.
Technical standards govern the video files that advertisers deliver. Publishers can choose to enforce minimum technical requirements to maintain quality video playback. If video creatives play on giant connected TV screens, publishers want to ensure that the image is not pixelated or cause any unforeseen technical issues breaking playback.
Publishers and ad platforms inspect attributes of video files below (and more) to ensure they meet established technical standards:
- Aspect Ratio (Height / Width)
- File Size
- Length (15, 30, 60 seconds)
- File Format (.mov, .mp4, etc.)
Exclusivity & Competitive Separation
Ok, so the content of an ad passes standards, and the video file adheres to technical requirements, so what's next? The next step is something any aspiring ad tech product manager must strive to do — keep the sales team happy.
Publisher sales teams often sell inventory with promises. Sales teams can only honor these promises by understanding all the creatives flowing through their SSP or ad server. One way to keep your sales team happy is to ensure that any technology built or implemented follows business rules and sales exclusivity agreements.
For example, a publisher sales team could offer General Motors the possibility to be the only automobile advertiser that runs on any of their properties for a week. Publishers could also offer exclusivity on specific sporting events or other bespoke sponsorship opportunities.
A publisher could also guarantee competitive separation by offering category exclusivity on video ad pods (the series of ads that play back to back during a video ad break). For example, to ensure GM ads never run alongside a Ford ad in the same commercial break.
Publishers with complex programmatic ad businesses must pay acute attention to the creatives flowing through their SSP to ensure they meet all these agreements. We will dive into more details on how this works later in this article.
Sales Channel Conflicts
A Publisher's sales and ad operation teams must carefully coordinate and implement a strategy to avoid sales conflicts when dealing with a high volume of ads from disparate sources.
Sales conflicts arise when a sales team cuts deals directly with certain advertisers, but those same advertisers find a better deal taking a different path to the same supply.
Supply? Path, you say? You may know where I'm going with this. Supply path optimization deserves a separate article, but it goes hand in hand with the concept of sales channel conflicts so let's quickly touch on it.
Whenever a publisher uses their SSP to open a new programmatic pipe (a connection to a new demand source), they create a new path to their supply — creating new opportunities for sales channel conflicts.
Let's walk through an example to crystallize the concept:
Let's say a publisher creates an exclusive deal with DraftKings at a $20 price floor. But a publisher also has an "always-on" deal with a DSP to sell remnant (unsold) inventory at a $16 price floor.
If the DSP makes the inventory from the always-on deal available to all advertisers, DraftKings could find a back door into the same inventory at a lower price point than their $20 exclusive deal.
Publishers can prevent these conflicts by placing advertiser or category blocks on always-on deals or any other programmatic demand source.
But to place an advertiser or category block into place, a publisher or their supply-side platform must know the advertiser behind all creatives. We'll explore how ad platforms determine which advertisers or categories creatives belong to later in this article.
Pixels and Data Leakage
If you need to learn what tracking pixels/beacons are, start with this VAST Explained article. The one-sentence summary is that platforms use pixels to track the performance and delivery of digital ads.
Platforms responsible for delivering creatives for playback provide tracking pixels to track playback — but they also often supply pixels from third parties. Third-party tracking pixels allow advertisers or their verification vendors to independently track ad playback so that they don't have to rely on trusting a publisher or platform not working in their best interest.
But whenever a publisher allows a third-party tracking pixel on their property, they open themselves to privacy and business complications. Tracking pixels collect information from the client (the apps and websites where publishers play ads), like IP address, user agent, and the web address (page URL) a user views an ad on.
So now publishers are allowing third parties to collect potentially sensitive user information. Additionally, third parties could use this information to build valuable targeting segments to retarget a publisher's users on competitive properties — a concept called "data leakage."
Ad platforms deliver tracking pixels alongside advertising creatives, but there are tools at a publisher's disposal to mitigate unwarranted data collection that we'll learn more about below.
Programmatic Video Creative Management
You now understand the challenges publishers must solve when dealing with programmatic video creatives. To solve these problems, publishers must learn more about video creatives by inspecting all the information available about the video files and the advertisers who produced them.
But where is that video file? Who hosts it, and how does it arrive in an app or website for playback?
The answer is VAST. Since I wrote a separate article on the VAST standard, I won't go in-depth here. But it is a standardized specification that ad platforms use to deliver video ads for playback.
If you don't want to read my VAST article, then fine! I'll create an analogy to speed things up.
Think of VAST as a map that points to different things. One is the creative (video file), and another is an impression pixel (URL). The file will play in a video player, and the impression pixel is a URL the player calls to tell someone that the ad played. Boom! You are a VAST expert, congrats.
Advertisers use DSPs to hand these VAST maps to publishers and their SSPs via ORTB bid responses. Woah Woah Woah, more acronyms, I know.
You know, I created a newsletter and an entire catalog of articles to explain all this ad tech stuff in great detail, but if you don't have time for such things, I'll summarize enough to get you through this article:
DSPs (demand-side platforms) are the platforms advertisers use to deliver campaigns. Publishers use SSPs (supply-side platforms) to sell programmatic ad inventory to advertisers.
OpenRTB (ORTB) is a standard for DSPs to talk to SSPs to conduct real-time auctions to purchase advertising inventory. SSPs send bid requests (can I have an ad?) to DSPs, and DSPs send bid responses (sure, here you go) to SSPs. In the bid responses for video ads, DSPs include a VAST URL pointing to the map we discussed above and tons of other helpful information.
Extracting Creative Metadata
Alright, we found the video file and some tracking pixels, but we need more than that to solve all the problems introduced at the beginning of this article. We must understand the advertiser behind a creative and potentially what they are advertising.
We can figure out this information through two different methods. We can trust the data delivered alongside the creative in VAST and ORTB responses or figure it out ourselves.
ORTB bid responses contain info about the advertiser of a creative and the category to which the creative belongs. Bid responses include this information in fields called "adomain" and "cat."
The "adomain" field will contain a domain that points to the advertiser's marketing website. For example, Ford's adomain is "ford.com."
The "cat" field contains the category of the creative using a set of standardized category codes created by the IAB, like "IAB2-10" for "electric vehicles."
The only other way to determine the advertiser and category is to watch the ad! This method is employed if:
- You do not trust the source delivering the ads
- The source does not populate the adomain or cat fields
Watching hundreds or thousands of creatives a day and classifying them into advertiser domains and categories is a monumental and daunting task, and companies often outsource this type of work.
Publishers and their tech platforms can also extract technical information about the creative from ORTB and VAST, like the file type, bitrate, height, width, etc., or by inspecting a video file.
Video SSPs must give publishers an easy way to parse through all the creatives that could play on their properties. Creative Review systems accomplish this by providing SSP users with a user interface to view creatives and their associated metadata and either block or approve individual creatives.
When publishers set up their SSP accounts, they have two options for dealing with creatives:
- Approve all creatives, but give me the option to block
- Block all creatives, but give me the option to approve
Premium video publishers usually go with number two, so they have complete control over what appears on their apps or websites. But in any case, creatives end up in Creative Review queues where publishers can browse through creatives, check out their associated metadata, and choose to approve or block them with a click of a button.
Now let's get into how we solve all the problems introduced at the beginning of this article.
Since you now know how to extract information about creatives, like the advertiser, category, and technical metadata (file type, height, width, etc.), you know how publishers have the data they need to have much more control over the creatives that display on their properties.
Publisher SSPs typically offer creative controls at three different levels:
- Account Level
- Inventory Level
- Deal Level
Account level controls
Account level controls are self-explanatory, as they are creative settings that affect a publisher's entire SSP account. Any creatives that hit a publisher's SSP instance will be subject to these settings.
Inventory level controls
Inventory level controls allow publishers to set specific rules for subsets of inventory. So, for example, maybe a publisher owns a broad swath of apps and websites targeted at different demographics and may want to prevent gambling ads from appearing on their family-friendly properties.
Publishers configure these settings in two ways:
- Dynamically on an ad request
- Within the SSP platform
An ad request is a way for the publisher to ask an SSP for an ad. Within this ask for an ad, publishers can declare specific things like "only deliver a creative with a certain bitrate," "deliver a creative of a certain file type," or "block these IAB categories."
Dynamic ad request declarations allow publishers more flexibility to customize settings before the SSP applies any settings configured in the UI (user interface).
But only some publishers require that level of control, and they are content configuring settings within the platform by clicking some buttons. Publishers can log into an SSP and apply category blocks or creative settings in the SSP UI, but these settings can layer on top of and override any other settings used on the ad request.
Deal level controls
If you need to know what a deal is, check out that SSP Explained article. But once again, I got you with a one-sentence explanation:
A deal is a way for publishers to create a connection between their SSP and an advertiser's DSP to buy specific inventory at a certain price, with some rules attached.
Publishers could use some of these rules to control the creatives allowed through the deal connection. But unlike inventory and account-level controls that affect all ads hitting a publisher account or specific inventory, deal-level controls only affect the buyers executing through a given deal.
We will talk more about using this level of control below.
Implementing Creative Controls
So what do all these levels of control look like in practice? The best way to understand implementing creative controls is to walk through some real-world scenarios that publishers encounter.
Enforcing Content Standards
Let's return to the wickedly indulgent liquid gold beverage of beer. If we operate a website or app that provides video content geared towards children, we don't want to show them the benefits of slamming more than a few cold ones at a tailgate.
But the problem is that we want to rake in that sweet big-beer money from showing beer ads across our other properties. So this immediately eliminates applying an account level block for the "Cocktails/Beer" (IAB8-5) category.
So this leaves us with two options, block IAB8-5 at the inventory or deal level. In this scenario, applying the category block at the inventory level makes more sense, so we don't need to implement this category block every time we create a new deal.
Also, publisher deals could have wide-open targeting on beer advertiser deals that may encompass hitting all publisher inventory. So rather than breaking deals apart depending on the inventory they target, a publisher can accomplish the same goal more simply by applying category blocks at the inventory level.
Enforcing Technical Standards
A great candidate for an account-level creative control is anything to do with creative technical standards since publishers typically use the same player or server-side ad insertion technology (SSAI) across their portfolio of apps and websites. So publishers often need to enforce the same or similar technical rules across everything.
Additionally, a publisher wants to ensure they only receive high-quality creatives to display across their portfolio so their users don't have to deal with pixilated video monstrosities.
Publishers could tell their SSP to automatically filter out creatives of a particular file type or block creatives that do not meet a certain bitrate threshold to maintain quality standards. SSPs can propagate these requests onto DSPs using fields like "minbitrate" in ORTB bid requests to help DSPs bid more efficiently and prevent janky low-quality creatives from ever entering the bid stream.
Honoring Exclusivity & Competitive Separation
"The official pizza sponsor of the [insert sports league here]." Sometimes advertisers pay for the right to be an exclusive sponsor in certain situations, and sales teams and their product counterparts need to account for programmatic demand conflicting with these agreements.
A publisher can honor exclusivity using inventory level controls, most likely in the SSP platform UI. SSPs offer different ways to achieve this goal, but these platforms will provide controls for publishers to allow or block specific advertisers on certain inventory subsets. The publisher needs to provide the adomain of the advertisers and tell their SSP when to block them.
Honoring competitive separation within individual ad pods is usually an account or inventory level control. SSPs will analyze the categories of creatives before constructing an ad pod and ensure not to return a pod containing multiple ads from the same category to a publisher.
An SSP will also, typically by default, ensure ad pods do not contain multiple ads from the same advertiser. This practice is a concept called "advertiser deduplication."
Avoiding Sales Channel Conflicts
Digital publishers have two main paths to sell their inventory: direct and programmatic. Direct sales are the old-school way of doing things, but they are often more lucrative and come with higher rates.
All that direct money may one day shift to programmatic, but currently, we are stuck with supporting direct advertising workflows and making them play nicely with programmatic.
Direct sales require teams to negotiate a deal with actual human words — a primitive affair compared to programmatic. It's a means to the same end as programmatic but in a much more inefficient way because it takes humans talking and working together manually to make a deal, and then the human advertiser employee will send a video file along with all the details about a campaign.
These details include all the things we discussed, and that systems could extract automatically through a programmatic ORTB or VAST response. But at the end of the day, we will have adomains, categories, and technical details from both the direct and programmatic creatives — allowing us to make sure both channels don't conflict with each other.
If a publisher's sales team closed a huge direct deal at a $50 CPM with an advertiser, they want to avoid that advertiser finding a programmatic path to the same inventory at a $25 CPM and lose 50% revenue. While infinitely more efficient, programmatic advertising is complex and can often open holes to publisher inventory they didn't even know were there.
One small trafficking error can leave opportunities for sales channel conflicts between programmatic and direct campaigns or between competitive programmatic deals targeting common inventory. Using deal-level advertiser blocks ensures publishers have ultimate control over where an advertiser serves.
VAST responses contain tracking pixels in fields like "impression" or "complete," which any good VAST-playing video player will need to call for interested parties to know an event occurred.
As long you trust the partner hosting the pixels, calling tracking pixels is all fine and dandy. But as previously discussed, tracking pixels can serve as vectors for unauthorized data collection. So how can we deal with this?
There are two paths to take here: relying on your SSP or taking matters into your own hands.
Some SSPs provide features that allow you to remove pixels from a VAST response before that VAST document ultimately makes it down to the player for ad playback. You give a list of domains you want an SSP to strip from a VAST response, and it does the rest.
Not to get too technical, but ad platforms host the resources that load when a player calls a tracking pixel on servers described by a human-readable domain name. Human-readable domains are an easy way to identify which pixels/partners you'd prefer not to access a user's details. For example, if you don't want any tracking pixels from "sketchymeasurementprovider.com," an SSP could remove all pixels from that domain from a VAST response before delivering ad markup back to your player.
If you want to take matters into your own hands, you could program your player or SSAI provider to do the pixel stripping. But this creates another technology feature that a publisher must maintain.
And so concludes my description of this everlasting plight of programmatic creatives. If you made it this far, congratulations. You must have a profound interest in learning about programmatic video creatives or love to read my prosaic meandering tomes of ad tech. Either way, I hope you learned something along the way.
As you now know, programmatic advertising can take small, simple things (video files) and add layers of complexity, but I hope this article shines some light on the method behind all the madness.