The Impression Exchange Solution: Idealism Versus Pragmatism

What is the IES? It seems to continue to make more regular appearances at the industry’s events, but few people seem to fully understand what it is, and how it will impact their operations. The IES stands for “Impression Exchange Solution” (or sometimes “Standard”), though I would argue as a technologist that the S should stand for “Specification” (more can be read on the IAB site). At its core, the IES is a proposed standardization of a unique tracking parameter added to each creative and the associated file format for daily reporting of these creatives. Of course, to understand why we need this, it’s important to understand exactly what the problem is that we’re facing and how we might go about solving it. Let’s briefly explore the mechanics of ad delivery discrepancy and review what needs to happen in order to truly address it.

Today, when a digital publisher delivers an advertisement to a user browsing the web, it often does not send the actual creative content, but rather only a link to content stored on another server, network, or exchange. This link must travel to the web browser requesting the content. Next, the browser will follow this link, which will fetch the contents from the next remote ad server in the chain. This may iterate several times before the actual creative content is delivered. Each of these server hops poses an opportunity to lose the connection and ultimately, credit for the impression. Contained in that initial tag served from the publisher is a code which identifies which ad the third party server should deliver. While the IES tag greatly simplifies post delivery analysis, the information required to track this transaction is already embedded in the initial tag served from the publisher.

Now, in order for this IES tag to accurately track all impressions delivered remotely on behalf of a publisher’s ad server, every 3rd party and rich media ad server in the delivery chain specified above would need to invest in their ad logging and reporting tools to support it. Any ad server not up to the standard would simply not be able to report delivery metrics based on IES tags and would create a “hole” that would require special case work-arounds and manual verification. Given that there are literally dozens of ad serving technologies out there today, a number growing at an ever increasing rate, this presents a tremendous investment requirement on the collective industry. Even if every system were to commit to the standard, it would likely take a very long time for the majority of them to come online, especially with commercially available solutions out there that work today!

There is also an ongoing investment that would need to be made by consumers of this data to maintain a list of 3rd party and rich media ad servers which support the IES. In addition, they would need to make sure that their IES reports were gathered and properly reconciled daily. Since the IES is not a “system”, but merely a message standard, there is no central warehouse where all delivery data would be stored. It would be up to each system which intended to consume the information to track changes to this list of supporting servers. There would also be the near certainty of increased costs to maintain broad connectivity caused by variations of each server’s implementation of the message specification. The bottom line: this would not be a one time expense. There is almost no way for a company to be able to provide this type of ongoing investment in its capability without passing some of the costs to maintain it on to the customer, either directly or indirectly.

In summary, the IES is not likely to solve the problem of third party discrepancy reconciliation in the short term. It is also not likely to be “free”, regardless of what systems end up providing this data to publishers, as it will cost a significant amount of money to build and maintain. Finally, the ultimate success, or failure, of the IES will be directly impacted by its ability to help publishers in a hybrid environment of both new and legacy technologies. The IAB should actively pursue ways to incorporate all existing technologies to solve this problem today. This will allow the IAB and legacy ad serving platforms time to refine and migrate to the new standard, and provide publishers with a solution now. When real problems demand immediate attention, a good plan today always trumps a perfect plan tomorrow.