Best of AdMonsters 2015

We've Learned a Lot This Year

Looking back on what happened in digital media in 2015, it’s hard to summarize it, exactly. I keep thinking of something AdMonsters’ Publisher Rob Beeler said during our Publisher Forum in La Jolla last month: One of Rob’s old lines about the state of ad ops is, “Everything is status quo; everything is changing.” And, generally speaking, that’s his take year after year on the perpetual state of ad ops. But more recently, it seems as though, as he put it, “change is changing.” The state of digital and the role of ops is growing into new shapes, pointing in new directions. When we look back, the path from there to here makes sense. Everything is a reaction to something that had been coming to a head for a long time. But the “when” and the “how” in these stories weren’t always predictable.

Throughout this past year, expectations around viewability have rattled publishers’ ad strategies. Widespread adaptation of ad blocking has pubs sweating potential revenue losses. Flash kicked the bucket, but you better not have bet money on the premise that HTML5 would slide smoothly into its place. Header bidding rose up as a way to empower pubs to seal programmatic deals with their preferred buyers, ideally at higher prices. And the video marketplace was the gift that kept on giving, both in terms of revenue opportunity for pubs and the questions raised by its increasing complexity.

Here are some of the highlights of the stuff we’ve published in 2015. Publishers answered a lot of questions along the way, so what we’re hoping to reveal in this list is not just which issues were most worthy of discussion, but what we’ve learned so far from taking an extended look at these issues. Get into it:

It Ain’t Automatic: The Manual Side of Programmatic: If programmatic were automatic, why would you need to be here right now? This was the most-viewed article AdMonsters published in 2015, and to even give it a cursory glance, it’s pretty clear why. (It’s not just because it was also the first piece we published in 2015.) Here, Rob Beeler discusses the importance of communication between departments and partners—ops has a unique understanding of what to expect from programmatic—and of automating what you can, so you can focus attention on what you can’t. There’s also a graphic breaking down the many, many functions encompassed by programmatic.

The In Crowd: Leveraging Data and Tools to Meet Video Audience Guarantees: One of the most significant trends this year has been the increasing flow of TV dollars into digital video, and that money certainly talks. With those TV dollars come some real changes in the way digital video is discussed and measured. The introduction of panel-based metrics, which broadcast has traditionally relied on, calls for many publishers to change up the data they bring to a transaction, which can itself be a wasteful process. Gavin Dunaway’s analysis here is a solid foundation for a discussion publishers carried on all year.

AdMonsters Playbook: Incorporating Programmatic Video: Okay, great, so video is blowing up, and publishers need to get in on it. But what does that entail, in a practical sense? Good question, and this playbook is a fine primer for getting started in programmatic video. It includes a list of best practices, a list of standard expectations publishers should have of programmatic vendors, and a general play-by-play breakdown of what happens during the early implementation of programmatic video. While AdMonsters dug deeper into many of these issues separately, later in the year, this remains a handy overall guide.

Rick Webb on Agency Shakeups, Programmatic Brands and More: We need to devote some attention to the agency world here. Major developments among agencies inevitably impact publishers, and agencies have experienced an especially disruptive 2015. The role agencies play in both creating and transacting upon media is in flu, due to the nature of the programmatic marketplace, trends toward native advertising, and the death of Flash. In this article, Gavin checked in with The Barbarian Group’s Rick Webb for an insider’s update on what agencies are going through and how that affects publishers. And speaking of Flash—specifically, creative agencies’ fondness for it in spite of diminishing browser support—also check out, as a companion piece, Tearing Off the Flash Band-Aid: Publishers and the HTML5 Creative Opportunity. In this article, I investigated the sometimes complicated ways pubs need to troubleshoot HTML5 conversions, and what the consequences of those conversions might suggest for the future of the agency/pub relationship.

The Rules of Mobile Advertising: If that headline sounds a little hardline, there are good reasons for it. For a long time, the joke has been that every year is “the year of mobile,” because it’s taken ages for brands to figure out how to advertise in mobile and for publishers to figure out how to monetize there. Thankfully, we’ve reached general agreements on a few aspects of mobile, aspects that are backed up with facts and figures about established user behavior. This article is a conversation between Rob and Opera Mediaworks’ Mark Fruehan, and it makes the case that not only is mobile farther advanced than we might sometimes think, its value is clearer than it sometimes gets credit for. We won’t go so far as to say mobile is easy, but there are “right ways” to do mobile, in a practical sense and not just a theoretical one.

Mobile Web Summons the Ad-Block-Alypse: Pubs have been up in arms in 2015 over the sudden rise in users’ adaptation of ad blocking software, and discussion at the AdMonsters Publisher Forum made it clear a lot of publishers are in crisis mode. In this article, Gavin Dunaway argues we’re only seeing the beginning–widespread adaptation of ad blocking in mobile could have serious consequences for pubs in the already-hard-to-monetize mobile space. But in spite of the apocalyptic headline, he suggests a new vision for monetizing strategies before pubs all run for the bunkers. Take Blocking Ads to Save Digital Media’s Soul? as a companion piece. These two articles together make an argument that ad blocking may bring about changes that had to come in order for pubs to best serve their audiences.

Breaking Out of the Two-Class System: Talking Holistic Yield Management With LiveRail’s Vijay Balan: “Match every impression with the channel likely to garner the most revenue – seems like the stuff of operational daydreams, but I’m not going to tell you to snap out of it,” Gavin wrote. The concept goes by a number of different names, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’re using the term “holistic yield management.” And it involves taking direct and indirect sales out of their separate buckets, to allow for, as Vijay put it, “a standardized way for a publisher to think about all of its inventory and allow controlled access to that inventory for maximum revenue.” This discussion explores directions publishers can take as the programmatic marketplace makes that un-bucketing possible.

Playbook: Video Private Marketplaces: I’d alluded to how, throughout 2015, AdMonsters took a closer look at certain aspects of programmatic video, and this is a worthy example. Private marketplaces have promised great revenue advantages for publishers, but in reality, they’ve presented a host of challenges and raised new questions. This playbook analyzes the points where the promise of PMPs and the promise of video meet. It devotes deserved attention to the complexities of Deal IDs, and offers a briefing on programmatic direct for video and programmatic TV. Video PMPs are a complicated niche, but here, it’s evident there’s a lot there worthy of hope and optimism.

All Access Pass: Dissecting Header Bidding With OpenX’s Qasim Saifee: At the end of 2015, header bidding stands as the hot topic du jour for publishers. It seems as though everyone has an opinion about it, whether they’re implementing it or not. While AdMonsters has published extensively on header bidding, this interview piece remains possibly the most cogent explanation in our files of what header bidding means and how it works. Gavin asked Qasim a series of straightforward questions about the value of and the obstacles in header bidding, and the result is a succinct yet detailed introduction to this exciting but often challenging practice.

Where User Experience and Ad Ops Collide: As Gavin wrote here, “We’ve called it “quality assurance” in the past, but ad operations’ role seems to have expanded so that user experience may be as important as monetization. Well, actually the two are related: Your job as an ops professional may be to increase revenue, but if your methods prove detrimental to site experience and drive away users, you’re ultimately sacrificing revenue by depleting audience. On the other hand, facilitating well-targeted, unobtrusive advertising may please and even build your audience; help you identify influencers; and certainly make your advertisers happy campers.” Malware, page bloat, ad overload, crappy creative—all of these things annoy users, and this article argues ops is uniquely positioned to keep that stuff off the site.

First-Party Data Playbook: Yes, this is an in-depth explanation of first-party data—a guide for how publishers can manage, understand, leverage and monetize their data. But it doesn’t end there—it’s also a handy overview for second- and third-party data. AdMonsters had touched upon each of the three broad categories of data throughout the year, and this playbook functions as a clearing house for those discussions and a tool for publishers to better understand how to find the greatest value for their data. As the playbook says, “Publisher first-party data is the oil of the digital advertising industry—a highly valuable substance in limited supply just waiting to be tapped. However, just like with the oil industry, the real money is not in drilling (i.e., gathering) but refining.”

Playbook: Understanding Attention Metrics: The click has historically ruled digital metrics, but by this point, few who live and breathe digital would argue the click is an accurate gauge of engagement. But over the last few years, attention metrics have finally gained traction on the buy side, and the sell side has much to gain from this. As this playbook says, “By including time in its calculation, viewability has opened a conversation into the value of user attention. It has introduced metrics with the potential to assist premium publishers in building attractive audiences; better quantify exposure for advertisers; and ultimately financially reward publishers with more engaged audiences.”

State of Ad Ops: The results of AdMonsters’ 2015 State of Ad Ops survey was illuminating and, in some cases, surprisingly so. By the survey results, ops is officially and literally complicated – publishers tell us they feel more threatened by the complexity of the marketplace than by their supposed competitors. And that complexity has brought competing publishers together to understand best practices, cross-screen measurement and vendor differentiation. As Andy Kahl of Sizmek said in the introduction to this piece, “The professionals that answered our survey were clear that ‘one size fits all’ simply doesn’t apply in ad technology.”

Reaching Inward to Reach Outward: DMP Success Through Teamwork: In discussions with publishers this year, we’d learned that a great number of pubs had taken widespread industry advice and hooked up with DMPs to increase audience reach and take advantage of third-party data segments—but they weren’t seeing results in their revenues, and they weren’t sure how to change that scenario. I took those concerns to Rishit Shah of Lotame, who explained a DMP is not a plug-in-and-go solution. In this frank discussion about driving revenue through DMPs, it became clear the process may require real dedication and imagination on the publisher’s part.