Having just packed 2 industry clichés into a single title, I now feel compelled to explain my excess. “Robust” of course is an adjective in our industry used to describe an application that is technically sophisticated, has many features required by business, and implies superiority to other competitors. And “Stack”? It’s a more recent entry into the cliché hall of fame, referring to a group of applications that, when integrated together, comprise a single platform needed to support a business or business unit.
In digital ad operations, both clichés are hard at work. This is because publishers and agencies are in the process of deciding which application(s) are going to support THEIR business over the next 5 years. Which array will enable them to grow their business and resulting revenue efficiently? Which ad server(s), order management, inventory management, reporting and billing applications will give them the most robust technology stack?
The problem is, solving this problem by creating the most robust technology stack is really the wrong approach. What companies need to start with is a review of their staffing, culture and strategy. FIRST, you need to focus on whether your approach is to pursue 1) a best of breed approach, or 2) an integrated strategy. THEN, you will have a roadmap that helps you select the array of applications that will best support your business.
The “Best of Breed” Approach
Based on your business requirements, one approach is to select the best application for each specific process at your company. This is particularly true for publishers. For instance, you may find that a single display ad server is the best fit, while different companies supply the best solution for video, and for mobile. If you approach the problem of building an ad operations infrastructure, you could wind up with 3 different ad servers. Now, layer on an order management system from a different source. Include a yield management application. Add an application to track third party ad delivery. Connect all of these to a legacy billing system and in some cases to a reporting suite. That’s 8 different platforms required to support digital ad operations.
If you are inclined to pursue this “best of breed” approach, here’s what you need to know. You must have the resources allocated to support the setup, deployment, integration and maintenance of all these applications. As a company, you must have an historical track record of allocating technical resources to the support of ad operations as a primary, not a part time, function. You must have demonstrated the ability to maintain the integration of disparate applications. For some companies, this skill set is ingrained in a “Business Systems” unit.
Unless you are adequately staffed to handle multiple applications and unless you have demonstrated the ability to do so, building a platform using this approach will fail. This is where looking at the staffing and culture of your company is so important. You need to be able to look yourself in the corporate eye and be able to answer the questions above truthfully and in the affirmative. If you can, then the “best of breed” really can lead to an approach that’s right for you and the operation of your company for years to come. If you try to fool yourself into thinking you will figure out a way to support this strategy when you cannot, then pursuing this scenario will only yield an organization that falls into dysfunction within a matter of months.
The “Integrated” Approach
Conversely, what if your company does not have dedicated resources focused on supporting many “best of breed” applications for digital ad operations? You could be a start up. Your ad products might not need the breadth of support from multiple ad servers. You could be a division of a much larger company who has not yet decided to pour more resources and money into digital. There may be any number of reasons why you might fit into this category.
In this case, selecting a company that can offer something closer to a single “end – to – end” solution would be your best approach. For example, a company that offers an order management and ad serving solution (for display, mobile and video) in a single package would require a less intensive deployment phase and less support from business systems staff on an on-going basis.
Of course, if you are giving up on “best of breed” you are going to be giving up on some features which might better support your business. But what you are gaining is a more simplified ad operations platform that will be less disruptive for the staffing and culture of your company. In the balance, that efficiency in operations is a fair trade for the couple of best of breed features which may be “nice to have” but not “must haves”.
In summary, there is no single right answer to the question of what constitutes the most robust techonology stack. It is about finding the right solution for your company. And as usual, it has nothing to do with technology. It does have everything to do with the people that work for you, both the number and the level of expertise. And it relies on understanding what your company has historically demonstrated as willingness to support ad operations and is therefore likely to do so in the future. Looking at yourself in the mirror and answering those questions honestly is the best route to determining the right approach for your organization.
And as a postscript, now that I’ve framed the issue in terms of a “best of breed” or more simplified “integrated” approach, I promise never to use the cliches “robust” or “stack” again.
Doug Wintz is a contributor at The Makegood and Founder and Principal of DMW MediaWorks, a consultancy specializing in digital ad operations and technology.