Advertising Technology

The Ad Server Is King?

Google’s launch of a new tag management product this month happened with little fanfare or reason to comment. After all, Google has launched many new media products over the years, many of which are free to use. They’ve probably given TagMan, BrightTag and SiteTagger some cause for concern. After all, which client will want to pay fees for tag management when it’s being offered for free by Google, Flashtalking et al. Google continue to pick off the components in the digital media technology ecosystem, from ad servers, to creative optimisation tools, and now the tag manager, potentially the last daisy in the chain. Their ownership of the entire supply chain began with their acquisition of Doubleclick in 2007. Shortly afterwards Microsoft threw their hat in the ring with a ‘whatever you can do I can do better’ stance by acquiring aQantive, the home of Atlas (now Microsoft Advertising Solutions). I think one of Microsoft’s biggest downfalls in the last 10 years was to ignore the ad server they spent £6BN dollars on, and in the process make a mockery of Steve Ballmer’s now infamous ‘advertising, advertising, advertising’ speech of 2006. 

A curious thing happened shortly after these acquisitions; it appeared for a time that the power was moving away from ad servers. There were so many things ad servers could not do that we needed, including rich media, dynamic banner advertising, ad verification, attribution modelling, bid management, even billing and reconciliation, I could go on and on. Whilst we continued to use an ad server to traffic ads, our reliance on them lessened. Ironically the introduction of the container tag by the likes of Atlas and Doubleclick seemed to compound their seeming downfall. Other technologies were now able to ‘piggy back’ their data and play a more valuable role in the media buying process. Take DSPs as an example, which can sit within the ad server’s container tag but piggy back this data to actively buy media using 1st party cookie data. Technology that collects data is much more powerful when it can actively make decisions and use the data to improve performance in whatever capacity. The ad server had for so long not been able to do that, unlike the bid manager or the DSP.

The downfall of the tag manager is that you cannot actively manage the data you’re collecting. So whilst many of the tag management providers have attribution as a function, one cannot actively buy media based on the data they collect, it’s completely passive and therefore redundant. Couple that with the fact that a container tag is about as much of a commodity as a free newspaper in the digital media world and that ad servers are now providing free tag management services and attribution modelling (it’s not only Google that are playing this game), stand-alone tag management products’ day are numbered. The fact that Google did not buy one of the existing providers should also be a warning sign to them. If Google didn’t want to buy one and thought it simpler to create its own, it’s unlikely anyone else will. VCs who have invested here might want to cut their losses now.

The same might be said of ad verification tools. A good one will be able to tell you if an ad has been seen or not seen (is in view or out of view). You cannot however actively manage that data without using another technology like a DSP or an ad server. Doubleclick now provides ad verification for free, allowing you to see the role viewable impressions play in the buying cycle versus those that are not in view.  The same goes for dynamic advertising platforms like Criteo and Struq. Flashtalking and Mediamind now both have the capabilities to dynamically target users based on certain behaviours using live data feeds. As ad servers they can actively manage the optimisation of these dynamic ads within a much larger data set making them more useful in the long term.

Data rich technologies like ad servers, bid managers and DSPs are now all building in the capabilities of these other standalone technologies, and actively managing the data they collect. For example, Doubleclick’s integration of Teracent means it’s now possible to see which dynamic ad rotation or sequence converts best in the path to conversion. This would not have been possible prior to the acquisition.

There are a few themes here.

1. Media technologies which actively manage data will eventually rail road those that cannot. This is why bid management technologies are still so prolific and are building out capabilities beyond their traditional uses.

2. There is a race by the big players to ‘see the whole picture’ or to have the whole data set. This is why Google has created a tag manager, because they were still a missing part of the jigsaw. The tag manager ultimately decides what data to collect and what not to collect. Google wants to be the main decision maker here.

3. Things have come full circle for the ad server. The technology that serves the ad, is the one that collects the most data. The ad servers have now developed capabilities to actively manage that data to drive performance. They lack the algorithm and buying capabilities of DSPs and bid managers but have become a key player in the digital media technology space. Tag management is now just one string to their ever expanding bow.

  • Chris Brinkworth – TagMan

    Hey Nathan,

    While I don’t 100% agree with you on the above (eg – if by concern, you mean excitement(?)), some parts of what you have pointed to are spot on and I like reading your views; it helps us to understand where we are not explaining our product fully to a broader market beyond enterprise clients that use us as an agnostic layer to monitor agency performance,vendor performance, multi-channel performance, page performance and test/probe/change the interactions between all.
    Here is TagMan’s view on Google TagManager.

    Looking forward to your next post and excited at your continued passion on this topic.