Where are we with VAST and VPAID?

Last year when I first joined AdMonsters I wrote an article about the Video Ad Serving Template, commonly know as the VAST which is a XML standard proposed and maintained by the IAB.

So what has become of VAST in the 12 months since? Has the industry embraced the VAST and VPAID standards? Is there wide adoption? Are the buy side and sell side seeing the benefits of VAST?

To answer these questions, I asked the following people for their thoughts:

Cristina Cieplensky, Ad Solutions Video Project Developer, NBC Universal Digital Media Sales Operations

I think VAST and VPAID are definitely useful in multiple ways, but probably the most remarkable is that it has opened up the conversation regarding running numerous third party vendors within our player environment.  

Being that NBCU has a proprietary video player and an internal engineering team, prior to VAST and VPAID, it was always an absolute “no” to allowing multiple third party ads to run in our players due to the dissimilar implementation required for each of vendor.  NBCU’s flash-in-flash environment required specific code in order for an ad to function correctly.  Although it took significant work upfront on the player side, we can now fairly seamlessly plug and play a new vendor as long as they are adhering to VAST.   

I don’t think it is any secret that the biggest gripe about VAST is the many possible interpretations of the spec.  On top of that, it also required working with many more teams, and personalities, who have different workflows, engineering interpretations, and timelines. This was difficult to manage with every vendor wanting to be integrated with NBCU as soon as we claimed support of the standard. Every vendor thought their ads were going to be up immediately whereas our advertisers  themselves weren’t so quick to adopt the new standards.     

NBCU is now receiving more third party served video ads, as well as a few VPAID units, from vendors outside those we initially launched with.  As we go through the process of onboarding new vendors we are finding that at times we have had to update our specs and player to widen support for some of the optional elements of VAST due to each vendors varying interpretation of the spec. This is done as a case by case basis where we evaluate that the change in code will have a direct benefit to the business. It’s been challenging integrating anything outside of direct linear ads, however, running linear ad units is much different than it was a year ago for our trafficking teams, and by different I mean much easier less complicated.  

I think on the sell side the benefits will be more obvious as VAST 2.0 matures, mainly because our turnaround times will continue to decrease as we get more and more VAST 2.0 compliant ad tags. The decrease in trafficking complexity and increase in efficiency should lead to less trafficking errors as we are getting one tag versus numerous creative assets and tracking pixel. It’s still too early to tell if less errors will be introduced because we are all still too new to this process to know if that will be the case.  

I think on the buy side of the fence this allows advertisers the flexibility to use the vendors they want to use at the rates they want to use.  Ultimate flexibility on both side of the deal is always ideal.

Mark Trefgarne, CEO and Co-Founder at LiveRail

VAST adoption continues to grow rapidly among the more sophisticated and nimble companies in our space. However there remains a small, but influential number of publishers, networks and vendors that appear either unable, or unwilling to adopt it. Perhaps worse, there remain companies that claim VAST-support publicly, but are unable to deliver it in reality – never has the term “false advertising” been more appropriate. This masks the true level of adoption on the supply side and forces buyers to regularly revert to old-fashioned manual workflows. Without universal adoption the true benefits of a single standard remain elusive – and we’re yet to see agencies put the full force of their influence behind the VAST/VPAID standard. That said, the progress of adoption is consistently in the right direction and VAST’s momentum means its universal adoption is now a question of when, not if. We are nearing a tipping point, at which adoption becomes ubiquitous enough that buyers can demand it, when this happens, the few remaining hold-outs on the supply side will feel the pressure to adopt the standard increase dramatically.

Max Goodberg  Director, Technical Services, Freewheel

Question: Are the VAST/VPAID standards useful?
MG: Without question.  VAST and VPAID serve as the foundation and framework for growing and innovating the digital video advertising economy.  From our vantage point in working with companies like ESPN, VEVO, and Turner, when VAST and VPAID are utilized, they allow the most basic to the most complex systems to interact and deliver rich experiences to users, no matter where the content is consumed.

Question:  Is there wide adoption?
MG:  For VAST, yes.  We have seen that the majority of publishers or sell-side ad technologies either support the VAST standard, or make it a key factor when thinking about the next iteration of their infrastructure.  For VPAID, not yet.  Some hesitation may be due to emerging Flash alternatives, and some may be due to not enough socialization of what VPAID is, its benefits, and how/where to utilize it.  We’re all for the use of both – true scale in this space will be ushered in by standardized, flexible interfaces rather than rigid proprietary demands.

Question:  Is the buy-side seeing benefit from the standards?  Sell-side?
MG:  Buy-side adoption has been slower due to some market factors and reticence on the part of advertisers to pay more for campaigns served via VAST.  It’s a bit of a chicken/egg situation: for the buy-side to see benefits they need to utilize the standards, but willingness to utilize the standards is dependent on understanding tangible benefits.  The sell-side is definitely seeing benefits in the form of faster integrations leading to increased distribution and resulting in scaled audience.  Publishers can deliver unique ad experiences seamlessly across technological borders – this leads to higher CPMs and increased user recognition, recall, and return.

Question:  Any predictions for 2011 changes to adoption or standards?
MG:  2011 will bring a refresh to the VAST standard.  The industry is looking to add some small features that only a few years of real-world use could bring to the surface.  We would love to see the VPAID concept extended to other technologies in addition to Flash.  As the market searches to accommodate new environments, a VPAID-like definition for those environments would ensure parity and continued industry growth and innovation, no matter what the end user’s device of choice may be.

Joey Trotz, Senior Director, Advertising & Digital Strategy Turner Broadcasting System &
Co-Chair, IAB Digital Video Committee

At the IAB Ad Ops Summit in November, we reviewed the results of a survey conducted by the IAB digging into these issues. We broke down respondents by category and were able to see some very helpful data. Over 80% of respondents are using VAST, with vendors leading, networks following, and publishers trailing. When viewed by scale of company, the larger companies which interact with more third parties were found to be further down the road with VAST implementation. The chief benefit cited was the ‘decreased cost of partner integration’ with almost 1/2 of VAST users indicating that benefit.  

In the category of challenges, there was both a sense of lack of understanding on the one side (around 30%) and a lack of support from the video players (also around 30%). Since most widely distributed video players have these challenges, we think both aspects point to a need for greater education.

In terms of reasons why respondents haven’t adopted VAST, it was clear that some category of companies don’t see it as necessary, or are waiting to see what others do (probably to see if it is necessary to do business). So to that end, we also see the need to continue forward with raised awareness on one side and enhanced capabilities on the other to build even greater use cases for this standardization.

The results of the survey lead us to two key activities of the IAB Digital Video Committee in 2011:

1) VAST/VPAID Technical Standards Update Working Group: The goal of this group will be to update the technical standards on VAST & VPAID to reflect the most current use cases. We will be looking at aspects not imagined in the early days of the standards including HTML5 and other similar developments. This working group will hold it’s first meeting on Feb 22, 1-2:30pm PST, 4-5:30pm EST.

2) VAST/VPAID Education & Compliance Working Group: This team will focus on educating end users of the technology, and raising awareness among agencies and publishers around the benefits of an open standard for video advertising interoperability. The group will also be working to strengthen the compliance protocols around VAST/VPAID. This group will meet on 2/16, 1-2:30PST, 4-5:30EST.

I’d love to make an open call for folks interested in joining these working groups. They can reach out to [email protected] if they want to join by January 31st.