As multiscreen viewing becomes more commonplace and content owners follow audiences onto â€˜digitalâ€™ platforms, it becomes increasingly important that the advertising experience between screens is equalized. This means that the value of an advertisement view is based on the person watching it rather than the screen they are using, which in turn demands demographic profiling of multiscreen users. It means that advertisers can buy audiences, like male 16-34 year-olds, in total, rather than buying â€˜screensâ€™ or even defined audiences (e.g. female adults) on a screen-by-screen basis. This requires that content owners, platform operators and ad-tech providers cooperate to ensure defined audiences can be found, aggregated and targeted whatever screen they may be watching.
Marketers need to be able to plan their campaigns so they know how many times someone has been exposed to their ad on each screen, so that reach, frequency capping and even sequential story telling can be managed. Cross-screen equalization of the advertising experience also requires that every screen attains the same high standards as the television set in terms of regulatory and commercial compliance, so the wrong advertisements are not shown before the watershed (when the kids are assumed to go to bed) and a Coca Cola ad is not shown right after a Pepsi ad in the same break (as an example).
One of the companies that is helping broadcasters and platform operators to achieve this vision, where effectively TV becomes a single service again, just spread over different display devices, is Freewheel, whose ad management and monetization solutions are found at some of the largest media companies. Among other things, the company takes care of ad-decisioning, yield optimization and compliance and it is helping to pioneer the unification of advertising inventory so multiscreen audiences can be treated as a single â€˜buyâ€™ by advertisers and a single â€˜sellâ€™ by broadcasters and digital publishers. Thomas Bremond, European Managing Director at FreeWheel, has been stressing the need for unified inventory that delivers the scale that advertisers want for their audience targets.
In one of the best practical examples of this, Freewheel, Comcast, Canoe (the ad-tech company formed by major US Pay TV operators and now focused on dynamic advertising insertion for VOD inventory), ABC (one of the major broadcast networks in the US) and A+E Networks all took part in a pilot last summer to unify ad inventory across classic cable VOD (served via set-top boxes) and digital (online/multiscreen TV).
The high-level ambition was to overcome the audience fragmentation that threatens the easily achievable reach (into different audience segments) that television has always given advertisers. The pilot did not only expose STB and digital inventory as if it were a single audience pot, it also set the scene for another kind of unification that the marketing industry wants â€“ a combination of direct sales (where advertisers and the inventory owner engage directly to strike advertising deals) and demand-side buys whereby advertisers use go-betweens (like a demand-side platform) to find them their target audiences across the digital landscape, including within multiscreen TV provided by broadcasters.
ABC is a world pioneer in unified inventory, having launched ABC Unified in 2012 to sell audiences to advertisers rather than screens. As we reported previously, advertisers can give ABC a target audience and a target number of impressions for that audience and the broadcaster contracts to deliver it, finding the viewers wherever they are. This requires that advertisers accept that all viewers are of equal value, whatever device they are watching on, something that ABC has demonstrated in studies.
Talking about the unified digital/VOD pilot last summer, Geri Wang, President of ABC Sales, said: â€œSince we launched ABC Unified our goal has been to make it easy for advertisers to engage with our audiences across screens. VOD viewers are a highly valuable audience and core part of that initiative, and our ability to include VOD inventory as part of ABC Unified via FreeWheelâ€™s solution is a great next step.â€
Joel Hassell, CEO at Canoe, said the partnership was a great step forward for programmers and MSOs given that VOD is becoming an increasingly important part of the media mix for marketers. â€œCanoe is committed to making it easier to include VOD in media plans that are looking to get premium video content at scale,â€ he pointed out.
It looks as if at least some STB-served television inventory is going to be made available programmatically, where the ads are being dynamically inserted to target specific audience segments (household-level addressable TV). As we reported recently, DISH Media Sales in the US (the sales division of DISH Network and its standalone OTT service Sling TV) has introduced programmatic buying with real-time bidding for linear addressable TV served via its STBs and satellite system. A key ambition is to reach out to digital-centric buyers familiar with this approach.
In the UK, Sky Media (the sales division for Pay TV operator Sky) has intimated that some (but certainly not all) of its Sky AdSmart household-addressable linear STB inventory will be made available for programmatic trading. Both these developments provide evidence for what one leading advertising agency executive told us privately, that TV will become the â€œpremium end of the digital stackâ€. Thus buyers with digital-like campaign objectives (including cost-efficient incremental reach into hard-to-find audiences, perhaps to complement mass-market advertising) could buy addressable STB inventory programmatically.
So unification comes in many forms when it comes to cross-screen advertising and trading â€“ unified audience measurement (most measurement organisations are working hard on this), unified inventory exposure regardless of screen and the ability to buy direct and programmatically on those combined inventory pots.
Unified multiscreen advertising is at the heart of the efforts to equalize advertising experiences across screens but a few other things are needed to achieve this second (and higher) ambition. One is the perfect viewing experience, which will obviously mean an end to any mis-timed ads or buffering and delays while devices fetch ads from ad servers, as sometimes seen in the digital world. Slow ad loading is being given as one of the reasons more people use ad-blockers.
Another key challenge is compliance (which is one of the factors that would hold broadcasters and platform operators back from making STB inventory available programmatically, until it can be guaranteed). As Bremond at Freewheel points out, the ad server and decisioning systems must take account of what advertisements can be shown and when, covering watershed regulations (to protect minors) and commercial spot-clash rules like keeping competitor ads apart, to obvious requirements like not showing the same advertisement twice in the same ad break on a multiscreen device.
Compliance can be hugely complex, with hundreds of rules plugged into the decisioning system. Guaranteed compliance is one of the key value-adds that Freewheel provides to customers for their direct-sales business, which accounts for the vast majority of advertising today (Bremond says 95% is still direct-sales). He says the challenge is to guarantee compliance on programmatically traded inventory and he is dubious this will happen any time soon.
The dangers are clear. â€œIf you screw up and put the wrong ad in the wrong programme you can destroy trust with advertisers, regulators and management. We hear broadcasters saying they want to trade half their content programmatically next year but that is not realistic given what it could mean for their schedules, user experience, trading partners and yield.â€
Strong compliance tools were one of the reasons why Sky Media chose Freewheel to support the management of Sky Deutschlandâ€™s digital ad inventory, including Sky Go inventory, when it brought all its German digital sales back in-house last year. The Freewheel Monetisation Rights Management (MRM) platform takes compliance and yield-optimization into account with its ad decisioning, provides tools for managing advertising sales rights, and supports forecasting and campaign analysis.
Freewheel already works with Sky Media in the UK and Martin Michel, Managing Director at Sky Media in Germany said at the time: â€˜We are just setting up our digital ad operations team and as a long-standing partner to Sky Media in the UK, we will use FreeWheelâ€™s technology and expertise to support our plans to manage digital video ads and develop Dynamic Ad Insertion in Germany.â€
The announcement coincided with Future TV Advertising Forum, and Bremond added: â€œAs broadcasters follow their audiences onto digital platforms, they are looking for ways to provide great TV experiences across all devices. Sky Deutschland will be able to support its digital assets across all of its digital platforms and set-top-boxes with compelling advertising that will be relevant to the targeted user.â€
Speaking about market needs generally, Bremond stresses the requirement to give advertising agencies what they want â€“ the ability to buy audience segments as a whole without worrying what screens they are watching. They do not want to have to buy an 18-34 audience on mobile and another 18-34 audience on television, he argues. That is why it is so important to combine the inventory. During the unified VOD/digital pilot Freewheel talked about â€œunifying to rebuild scale.â€
There are other complexities that an ad decisioning and yield optimization system must take into account in an increasingly hybrid environment. The Freewheel system needs to know whether someone is buying ad inventory on the basis of impressions or viewed impressions, and if they are viewed impressions, what viewability threshold is being used. This all determines whether you can bill for an ad placement or not.
When deciding what ads to show, the system could take into account a bunch of factors beyond target audiences and compliance, in order to extract the most yield. It will understand whether you need 75% viewability (i.e. how much of the ad is viewed) in order to get paid, what CPM (price) an advertiser is paying and what revenue share you are getting on that, for example. These are the kind of business issues that are built into the algorithms that also take account of frequency capping and other campaign stipulations.
All of this is part of the daily routine for ad decisioning systems. What the industry needs now is for the inventory exposure and buying process to be unified and so made easier as a major step towards the equalization of advertising experiences across screens. That in turn takes us closer to the ultimate goal of television becoming a single service again, available anywhere, rather than a hybrid of television set and â€˜multiscreenâ€™ operations.