Mention ad networks to a veteran of digital advertising and you're bound to get an earful -- some good stories and some bad.
Chances are that if you're talking to a publisher, especially one that specializes in premium content, you're going to hear that ad networks might just be the death of interactive. After all, they drive down ad rates and squeeze already razor-thin margins.
Talk to a brand manager, and you're likely going hear concerns about placement: "Will my ads appear next to the right kind of content or will I have to explain to my boss why we're sponsoring porn?" Or, perhaps you'll hear the questions wrapped up in an all too familiar word these days -- transparency: "Hey, what the heck am I buying, anyway?"
And if you talk to the ad networks, you'll hear some pretty standard, and altogether indecipherable, sales jargon about how they offer a "proprietary, next-generation platform" that offers "robust, dynamic targeting" and "unparalleled reach." Okay, maybe some ad networks do offer all of those things, but they can't all be the best, right?
But if you talk to a media buyer -- assuming you can pry those over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived souls from their laptops -- you'll hear that ad networks are the best way to achieve reach and frequency (and sometimes relevancy) on a tight budget and quick deadline. You'll also hear that whatever ills come with an ad network buy are simply the cost of doing business online these days.
But with more and more of the online advertising spend -- and user traffic -- going to ad networks, we decided to ask some buyers what they really think. But before we share the heaven and hell of working with ad networks, it should be pointed out that all of the buyers were asked about ad networks as a class, not about any specific ad network (although some were keen to speak out about particular ones). One additional note: Google is an ad network, and quite a successful one at that. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, some marketers have trouble classifying the search giant in this way.
The horror. The horror.
How many ad networks are there?
You run an ad network? Welcome to the club. Membership consists of companies that call themselves ad networks; nobody knows how big the group is, but it's getting bigger all the time.
Okay, that doesn't really happen. But there are a lot of ad networks out there. Tons, in fact. Even more troubling is that the long-predicted ad network shakeout hasn't happened (yet).
So, how do media buyers keep them all straight? They don't.
And, even more to the point, how do media buyers figure out who's selling quality impressions and who's blowing hot air? Trial and error.
"The sheer number of networks and subsequent overlap of inventory has created frequency issues and, at times, confusion," says Guy Schueller, media director for Organic.
More than a few media buyers echoed this sentiment, and several who spoke more candidly off the record said the only distinguishing factor between a lot of ad networks is your relationship with your salesperson.
"You really don't know where to go," one anonymous former buyer confessed. "At the end of the day, it's a gamble, and you try to hedge to some extent by picking someone you've worked with because you know -- or you hope -- that they will make it right if something goes wrong."
Who's my publisher?
Let's say you're a marketer for a life insurance company, and so you are looking to reach married, professional men between the ages of 30 and 45 with young children -- men who could be in the market for life insurance based on their demographic indicators. This should be a match made in heaven, and an ad network should be able to take you -- at a price that's within your budget -- to all the places that you're likely to find this target audience. Do these men read personal finance articles in their local newspapers? Check. Do they frequent sports blogs? Check. Do they consume content like tech, fitness, and all the other categories thought to be associated with your average red-blooded American male? You bet.
So you make your network-based buy, and guess what, you get great results -- better than you had hoped for. So what's your problem? Well, if you're Sean Cheyney, VP of marketing and business development at AccuQuote, there's something else you'd still like to know: which specific sites are performing better than others?
"[You have a] lack of control over which sites in the network deliver most of the impressions," Cheyney explains.
While Cheyney may still get value for dollar with his media buy, he's missing some critical insights that could be applied to making better creative or sorting out the best leads for his sales team. After all, only 10 percent of his buy might include sports sites, for example, but those sites might account for the lion's share of his best leads. Even more alarming, Cheyney has no way of knowing which publishers he should approach for a direct buy. And if you think about it, most ad networks will never have an interest in telling a buyer which individual site is right for a direct buy because middlemen -- by definition -- need to keep all parties at an arm's length.
Believe it or not, the right ads run alongside the wrong content everyday. And no, we're not just talking about the instances where a premium brand somehow ends up sponsoring pornography because its agency bought media through a blind network. (Although, that still does happen far more than it should).
According to Jose Manuel Montenegro of the Sensis agency, making sure that your content guidelines are followed to the letter can be quite tricky because it means picking apart the ad network's technical methodology, not just relying on the assurances of your sales representative.
"Understanding the targeting technology that an ad network uses is critical," Montenegro explains. "A leading network recently failed to implement our content guidelines properly because their targeting technology scanned the content of pages, but not the pictures. As a result, a client's banner showed up next to a picture that severely violated the content guidelines for the brand."
You hear it so often in digital that it's practically a self-help mantra for marketers: Optimize! Optimize! Optimize! Digital detests waste, and the hope has always been that advertisers would pay top dollar for that kind of lean and mean efficiency.
But using an ad network doesn't always mean that you're getting the most optimized buy, even if the network boasts of its "proprietary optimizing platform."
For Keith Wilson, who is the director of display media at The Search Agency, an inability to optimize his own campaigns can be frustrating because that's a process that often requires a human judgment call that he'd prefer to make.
"Many ad networks provide little visibility into data and optimization techniques," Wilson complains. "This makes it difficult to understand the pockets of inventory that may be performing well and how we can isolate and grow the performing segment."
Montenegro is a little more blunt when it comes to the claims of optimization made by many ad networks:
"In my experience, optimizations on ad networks tend to not yield significant results," Montenegro explains. "Whether it is because of poor customer service or lack of technology, I have never seen a network significantly improve its performance through optimizations. Usually they work from the start or they don't."
Are you buying junk?
It's no secret: ad networks sell remnant (i.e., unsold) inventory. But they can also sell prime inventory. The risk, which is especially prevalent for smaller advertisers and those who are extremely budget-conscious, is that the hook of low CPMs could be really a giant sign that screams, "low-quality inventory."
If you're looking at a specific page, you can guess where those ads might go. But if you're looking at an ad network dashboard, the remnant inventory problem won't be as apparent.
Is that a bad thing? Yes and no.
According to Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade, buyers shouldn't expect much return on a remnant buy. But Neisser points out, lower prices might just make up for decreased return, provided that you're willing to accept sub-par results.
It wasn't us, we swear
When a client hires an agency, it expects full accountability. No argument there. That client may or may not appreciate that the agency uses vendors and other intermediaries to service its account, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with the agency. The trouble is, the agency might not have as tight a grip on its ad network as it might like. Consider this horror story from Montenegro of the Sensis agency:
"Once you work with a network and create a custom site list, make sure to enforce that no sites are added to it," Montenegro explains. "We encountered a situation where a network added sites to our list that fell within the same vertical, but catered to an audience that wasn't only off-target, but that [was] strongly opposed our client."
Editor's note: Do you disagree with what was said? Feel free to leave a comment and share your two cents on ad networks. But remember to check back tomorrow to hear tales from the other side of the coin, when marketers share what they really like about working with ad networks.
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
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