A better way for publishers to manage ad inventory

By Eric Picard (Originally Published on iMedia – April 16, 2015)

Publishers in general have, up until recently, thought of programmatic advertising only as a mechanism to clear unsold (remnant) inventory. Over the last few years, publishers have been able to begin integrating their programmatic sales more completely into their overall inventory pool. And those publishers that dived fully into the programmatic pool have been gathering significant learnings and gaining sustainable advantage over their competition. For those publishers who have not fully adopted programmatic methodology into their mainstream revenue operations, the time has come.

Today I’ll be using Google’s DoubleClick for Publishers and Ad Exchange as the examples of how publishers are operating. But other ad servers, SSPs, and exchange technologies support similar functionality to what I’ll describe here. I’m using Google’s because, frankly, its documentation is public, easily found via a search (shockingly), and easy to understand. If you’re using different vendors, feel free to reach out to them and ask about these concepts. I’m certain they’ll be able to accommodate you with similar approaches on their platforms.

Starting with the basics

RTB and direct make use of different infrastructure for decision-making, and ultimately it’s the publisher ad server that “owns” the direct ad sales, which controls the destiny of whether an ad impression is available to be purchased on the exchange.

Below is an example of how ad calls are made when a user visits a web browser and the page loads. This fundamental of our business should be understood before we dive into the deeper arcana of how programmatic systems interact with the publisher ad server.

When a user visits a web page, myriad events take place — most of which we’ll ignore in this article. The important thing to understand is that publishers code ad tags into their web pages, which call out to the publisher ad server. The publisher ad server returns unique identifiers to the page that tell the browser where to find the ads that have been selected.

This is how nearly all ads are served online today — and have been for more than 15 years. What’s important is how this is fulfilled under the surface of the impressions. There are numerous interactions happening within the publisher ad server, and the external systems — including standard ad platforms like third-party ad servers (DFA, Atlas, Sizmek, etc.), dynamic creative and rich media platforms (Flashtalking, PointRoll, etc.), and programmatic platforms such as supply-side platforms, ad exchanges, and demand-side platforms.

More advanced scenarios

All sorts of decisions are made in the milliseconds between the user visiting the publisher’s web page in a browser, and all of these various systems interact with each other. But we’ll leave most of these interwoven interactions aside for this discussion and keep to the critical ways that the publisher ad server interacts directly with whatever programmatic integration it has made.

Most of the time the publisher ad server interacts with an SSP (Rubicon, PubMatic, etc.) or directly with an ad exchange (Google’s AdX, AppNexus, etc.). While I’m giving examples in some parts of this article to illustrate the kinds of companies seen in the space, the reality is that the lines are very blurry, and some might argue that components of AdX and AppNexus operate like an SSP, and components of Rubicon and PubMatic operate like exchanges. Think of them as relatively interchangeable at this point.

Regardless of what vendor and mechanism is used for the programmatic supply integration (and often multiple are used), the publisher’s ad server interacts in somewhat specific ways with these systems. So let’s begin with the prioritization queue set up within the publisher ad server.

Most publisher ad servers provide functionality to allow the ad operations teams to assign the various contracts (insertion orders, or IOs) and specifically their subsequent contract line items against specific prioritization levels within the ad server. DFP has 16 levels of prioritization available, with the first 11 levels being set aside for “reserved” or “guaranteed” line items. Of these top 11, typically the first three levels are used for sponsorships — as the highest priority line items placed into the ad server.


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