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How the CTV Ad Server is Playing a Role in Subscription Revenue

Tim Cross  18 January, 2021

Ad servers tend not to come to mind when most people think about the world’s sexiest ad tech products. But in CTV environments, the ad server plays an even more significant role than in video players designed for desktop and mobile and the importance of its role cannot be overstated. There are, of course, strong similarities with standard online ad servers. Like any other video ad server, CTV ad servers are (unsurprisingly) responsible for serving ads into the video stream, and have roles to play around targeting and measurement.

However, there are a number of nuances in the CTV world which mean the ad server is required to take on a greater workload.

For a start, TV advertising has to comply with more rules and regulation around which types of ads can be shown to which audiences, and at which times.

And CTV ads will often be grouped together in ‘pods’ for longer ad breaks, rather than as standalone pre-rolls or mid-rolls. This means factors around where each ad appears within the ad break, and maintaining competitive separation within each ad break, have to be taken into account when choosing which ad to serve.

Thomas Bremond, general manager, international at FreeWheel, outlined some of the specifics.

“Whichever ad server a CTV company uses, it has to understand the rules around TV,” he said. “You want to make sure that the right ad shows up at the right time, and you’re not, for example, showing an ad for alcohol if there are restrictions on doing so.”

Functions like frequency capping may also look different in CTV environments. For a long show with multiple ad breaks, it might be desirable for the same ad to be shown multiple times in different ad breaks (or for different ads from the same brand to be shown for sequential messaging). But there are still limits – a brand would likely not want the same ad to be shown ten times within one TV show. So factoring in these decisions while choosing which ads to show is somewhat unique to CTV ad servers.

Bremond added that in CTV, it’s particularly important that ads are served seamlessly into content, with no interruption in the video stream.

“When we watch TV content and the ad break starts, you almost want it to feel as if the ads are part of the programme, that they’re not an interruption,” he said. “That might sound trivial and easy, but technically it’s not, it’s really very complicated.”

The most popular way to do this is through server-side ad insertion (SSAI), where ad content is stitched directly into the content stream by a specialised server. While this stitching isn’t handled by the ad server itself, the ad server does still play a role. The ad server must communicate with the SSAI server, receiving ad requests from this SSAI server and sending back the appropriate creative.

Direct Sales vs Programmatic Auctions

The role of the CTV ad server is also affected by the way the publisher sells its inventory.

For big broadcasters and larger CTV-first publishers, most or all of their inventory is sold directly to agencies and brands.

In these cases, the ad server is very much the brains behind content monetisation, targeting ads at specific users based on the deals that the publisher has set up.

British broadcaster ITV for example sells its on-demand CTV content directly to buyers through its automated sales platform Planet V.

Vinay Gupta, senior solutions architect at ITV, described the workflow. When an ad slot is available on ITV hub, ITV works with third parties to send any available data on the user and the impression to the ad server. The ad server then, along with the information it has on orders made through Planet V, chooses the right ad to show, and serves it into the stream. Functions like tracking and measurement are then handled through SDK integrations with the ad server.

But for smaller CTV publishers, sales may be made through programmatic auctions.

In these cases, the supply-side platform (SSP) will use data to target ads in real time, and may fill entire ad pods, handling competitive separation and frequency capping within those pods.

This reduces the workload on the ad server – though some ad servers might be directly integrated with an SSP. In these cases, the ad server itself still handles decisioning, and just passes on the appropriate signals for the SSP to be able to execute sales.

Increased Use of SSAI and Monetisation Strategies

As CTV viewing continues to grow, CTV ad servers have had to evolve to meet buyers’ and sellers’ demands. ITV’s Gupta said the main focus for ITV at the moment is bringing SSAI into CTV.

“We are already running server-side ad insertion very confidently on our .com and mobile platforms,” he said. “The next move is to bring that to connected TV, and tech wise we expect it to work very similarly to those other platforms. TVs are increasingly using Encrypted Media Extensions and HTML5-based players [both of which are commonly used on web and mobile], which means we should be able to run SDK integrations like we do on mobile and web.”

FreeWheel’s Bremond added that ad servers are increasingly looking to help optimise overall monetisation strategy for broadcasters and CTV companies, including for subscriptions and rentals.

Ad servers’ role in ad decisioning means they’re able to forecast monetisation for specific pieces of content and users. And as more CTV apps embrace hybrid monetisation strategies, where some content might be free and ad-supported while other content is only available to paying subscribers, ad servers can help publishers to decide which content should be made free.

“If a publisher acquires a piece of content, they want to know how they can make the most money from that content – is it with ads, subscription or rental?” said Bremond. By forecasting how much ad revenue a piece of content would be likely to generate, CTV ad servers can help publishers compare revenues from different monetisation strategies.

And the ad server can also help publishers and broadcasters push the right subscription packages to the right users, to help monetise each viewer most efficiently.

“If I’m a CTV company, for a given type of content and a given user, I want to know I’m offering the right subscription package and ad load,” said Bremond. “And for the next year or so, I think ad servers will be figuring out how to help do that.”

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