Amazon, Sizmek and the Future of Ad Serving

 
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Amazon’s decision to acquire Sizmek’s ad server assets out of bankruptcy makes a clear statement: Amazon views the ad server as a foundational point of data collection, distribution and control in the ad tech ecosystem. The ad server is ad tech’s version of “the last mile” to the consumer; as the ultimate delivery vehicle of the actual ad impression, the ad server is the last platform within the tangled web of ad tech to actually touch the end customer when an ad is delivered. As a result, it is the ad server that becomes the advertiser’s linchpin for both data collection and creative deployment and control, including personalization.

A Changing Ad Serving Landscape

Back when DoubleClick for Advertisers (along with other client-side ad servers) was first launched, its purpose was threefold:

  • To provide an objective third-party audit of publisher delivery and source of truth for billing;

  • To provide a means to harmonize campaign data for attribution across display, search and other channels; and,

  • To provide a central point of creative management for a campaign.

The demand amongst advertisers for these three capabilities has not diminished with the advent of programmatic buying; in fact, it has only increased. However, Amazon’s Sizmek acquisition highlights a disturbing reality for you, the advertiser: the walled gardens are winning the battle for control and ownership of your customer data, and your source of truth for payment and attribution.

Historically, Google’s DoubleClick Manager (DCM)—recently rebranded as Google Marketing Platform—has been the de facto ad server of choice, with over 90% market share. The remaining share was picked up by independent ad servers like Sizmek and Flashtalking. With Sizmek now being pulled into Amazon’s orbit, the walled gardens have strengthened their hand.

Using Google as the example, there are three fundamental issues with having your ad server sit within a walled garden:

  1. Google integrates media buying and ad serving capabilities which creates a clear conflict of interest: ad servers are supposed to provide an objective source of truth, yet the company makes the lion’s share of its money selling media.

  2. Google is a closed ecosystem that does not allow for independent third-party measurement; advertisers must rely on the Google to grade its own homework.

  3. Google restricts access and portability of user data.

This last point has become a mission critical issue for advertisers since May 2018 when Google—citing GDPR privacy concerns—announced to its European advertiser clients that it will no longer include the DCM ID in its ad server logs. For many advertisers who relied on these logs to perform their own analytics, the DCM ID served as the “Rosetta Stone” that allowed them to link DCM impression data to their first-party and partner data. Over the years, many large advertisers have built their entire analytics infrastructure around the DCM ID. When Google removed the DCM ID, this all collapsed resulting a host of problems for advertisers, including:

  • Inability to verify delivery, reach and frequency at the user level

  • Inability to analyze conversion paths or perform multi-touch attribution

  • Inability to incorporate third-party device graphs, location data, or offline sales data

  • Inability to analyze user-level data to understand interests, behavior and preferences

  • No user-level activation through log files

Google has already announced that it plans to remove the DCM ID in North America and the rest of the world in early 2020, which will set off the same dynamics state-side and in APAC. It is reasonable to expect that Amazon will follow suit and remove the Sizmek ID when it assumes control of the ad server.

The Need for an alternative to Walled Gardens

What does this mean for you, the advertiser? Well, for those advertisers who do not care so much about analytics—if all you need are basic reports that show which ads got clicks and conversions—then you should continue to use Google, or Amazon. In fact, Google offers its Ads Data Hub where you can upload your first-party data into its data cloud so Google can perform the analysis for you. This could be a viable alternative provided you are comfortable with outsourcing your analytics in the absence of third-party validation.

However, if you are an advertiser who cares deeply about measurement and/or wants to maintain ownership and control of your data, you need an open alternative to Google—and Amazon—that is nonconflicting in its focus on serving the advertiser.

These are the types of advertisers that Flashtalking works with: those that value media independence, advertiser ownership and control of data, creative relevance, and enterprise-level customer service. For those advertisers across the globe who want to own and control their data and analytics, Flashtalking provides a truly unique and superior option. For ad tech partners who are committed to an independent ad tech ecosystem, Flashtalking provides open interoperability.

Flashtalking’s Strategy

With Google’s retrenchment and Sizmek’s implosion, Flashtalking stands as the industry’s lone financially self-sufficient independent ad server. But we understand that being the sole survivor and “not Google” are insufficient justifications to work with us. We know there must be something unique; something that differentiates us; and something that unlocks real value for you, the advertiser.

At Flashtalking, we accept that challenge every day: to deliver unique and compelling advantages, based on a strategy and commitment to innovation that is 100% aligned to the needs of sophisticated advertisers:

  1. Ad server data is a strategic asset that should be owned by the advertiser

  2. Unique data and analytics capabilities to supplement client execution and measurement

  3. Personalization as the foundational element of our brand-new campaign management platform

  4. Ecosystem integration to drive operational efficiency

  5. Unparalleled service and support for our clients

Over the past four years, Flashtalking has invested heavily in its products and organizational capabilities—both through acquisition and in-house development—to create unique innovation across four areas:

Primary Ad Serving

Our new Campaign Manager is full-featured and lightning fast, with extensive capability for managing the largest and most complex campaigns, across desktop and mobile, and across display, rich media, video and native formats. It is the only platform that enables global frequency management across buying platforms. And its cutting edge API architecture allows easy integration into partner systems, which we are using to eliminate tag wrapping with verification partners such as DoubleVerify, IAS and Moat, and to programmatically propagate placements between Prisma, Flashtalking, and DSPs.

Personalization

Flashtalking has long been known for its pioneering “decision tree” approach to dynamic creative personalization, and we have continued to innovate in this important area. Recently, we enhanced the personalization capabilities of IDConnect, allowing clients to choose any third-party identity marker as the basis of personalization in Flashtalking—all enabled without cookie matching. This means no data loss between Flashtalking and your DMP or DSP, so you have higher match rates and more effective personalization.

We have also launched Hedges, a robust spreadsheet-based tool that makes it fast and easy to build even the largest and most complex personalization campaigns. (Yes, it’s a funny product name. Our developers said they were building a “decision hedge” rather than a “decision tree”…and it stuck!) Hedges supports unlimited decision rules, and up to a million personalized versions.

And coming in October is our new Decision Tree UI. Built on the same platform APIs that support Hedges, the new Decision Tree UI incorporates several new features and performance enhancements that will give advertisers greater flexibility, speed and ease of use when building and visualizing their personalization strategies in the platform. This is something we can demo for you today—we think you will find it to be pretty slick and very exciting!

Identity Orchestration

The cookie is dead. Recent moves by Apple, Firefox and Google Chrome to curb the abuse of third party cookies has rendered cookies nearly useless for legitimate analytics purposes. Today, any analysis performed on cookie-based data—including DCM—will contain serious distortions, including (on average) overstated reach (+90%), understated frequency (-43%), and understated attributed conversions (-41%) as documented in Flashtalking’s Cookie Rejection Report. This distortion of foundational data makes it impossible to use cookies to measure the basic performance of online media, and provides false signals that make most campaign optimization efforts counter-productive.

Enter Flashtalking FTrack. Our cookieless tracking technology uses non-PII signals to establish a more stable tracking identity for analytic use. FTrack is privacy-safe, and GDPR-compliant. It is not based on offline identity, has full opt-out, and is never used to profile or monetize users. It offers more accurate reach, frequency and attribution signal than any other product available.

Flashtalking believes that ad server data belongs to you, the advertiser; it is our objective to deliver the highest quality data back to you. Our identity orchestration offering called IDconnect delivers. IDconnect appends our FTrack ID as well as any partner ID you desire (e.g. website analytics ID, DMP audience ID, identity graph ID, viewability ID, DSP ID, third-party data ID) to each impression record in the log file. In doing so, Flashtalking provides the advertiser with a fully integrated, high-integrity, ready-to-use data set for analytics. This unique product eliminates 80% of the data alignment and cleansing work typically required for advanced analytics.

Advanced Analytics

Built into the ad server is Encore, the industry’s best Multi-Touch Attribution (MTA) solution. That is not puffery. It is the best because IDconnect feeds it a better, cleaner data set than any other MTA provider can claim to have. With better data going in, the models that assign credit are so strong, we make them 100% transparent. Yes, you read that correctly. We give the advertiser complete transparency to the algorithm, the model accuracy, and the underlying raw data so you can have complete confidence in the recommendations to optimize spend. But Encore goes even further, providing creative optimization recommendations using a machine learning algorithm that isolates the impact of each creative concept while controlling for audience and media bias. As it turns out, Flashtalking Creative Analytics is the most powerful lever advertisers can pull to improve the productivity of their media investment.

Support, Knowledge and Global Coverage

In the end, success in this business has always been about people. Unlike the big tech players, Flashtalking will continue to distinguish ourselves with the most knowledgeable, most capable and most tenured team in our industry. And while we are committed to being there for our clients when they need us, we don’t want to create dependency hostages. Instead, we want to do everything we can to help our clients and agency partner build their own organizational capabilities by:

The Adobe Partnership

Our strategy is resonating with advertisers and the industry. In just the last six months alone, we have been selected by some of the biggest, most prestigious brands in the world as their primary ad server partner and as personalization partner. But most tellingly, we have been selected by Adobe as their global ad serving partner.

Adobe products are pervasive among the top tier clients we aim to serve, but Adobe does not have an ad server. So Adobe and Flashtalking have teamed up to provide an integrated solution to advertisers. We are in the middle of an aggressive technology integration agenda that will provide real value to our shared clients. Whether you only use Adobe Analytics, or have also adopted Audience Manager, Tag Manager or Adobe DSP (aka TubeMogul), Flashtalking is integrating in a variety of ways to give you new capabilities and make your life easier.

our Commitment to you: Better Results

Better tools. Better data. Better ecosystem integration. Better support. Data ownership and independence. These all add up to better results for you, the advertiser. In the end, that is Flashtalking’s real promise: more return your online advertising investments. That better return will come in a variety of ways, and grow over time as we work together. Bring us your challenges. We will work with you to build the metrics, business and roadmap to success.

by John Nardone, CEO