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What the Heck is an Ad Server? And Why Do I Need One?


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Let’s be honest—do you really know what an ad server is? From the term itself you can probably deduce that it’s a platform for serving ads. In essence it is. But there are plenty of benefits, capabilities, and other details that most people are unaware of. And this information can be invaluable to your digital advertising strategy. 

Never fear–Innovid is here to break down everything you need to know about ad servers.

Let's start with the basics, what is an ad server? 

Publishers, agencies, and brands all use ad servers to manage, deliver, and measure digital ads. Think about an ad server as a web space that stores digital ads and delivers them across channels and devices as needed. But ad servers have also evolved beyond that simplicity. 

Now, modern ad servers are a one-stop-shop for ad management solutions. It’s a centralized place for uploading creatives, defining delivery parameters, implementing creative strategies, tracking your performance, and gaining advanced insights and measurement. With an ad server, you can automate instantaneous decisions about where and when to serve an ad. Plus, ad servers report key performance data across formats, channels, and devices.

In terms of the technical structure, an ad server decides moment-to-moment which ads are most suited to show on a publisher page (website), and then serves them. For CTV specifically, these creatives are pushed to various streaming services. 

Ad Server

What are the main benefits of an ad server?  

Ad servers have advanced significantly. At Innovid, we like to compare today's ad servers to the iPhone. Just like you depend on your smartphone, brand and agency professionals increasingly rely on their data-driven ad servers. 

Today’s ad servers are much more than a system to transport a tag from point A to point B. They're now an indispensable technology that boosts ad performance, increases ROI, and delivers a unified view of your total marketing efforts. 

The modern ad server is like mission control for an advertiser. When you deploy an ad server, your advertising campaigns tap into a reserve of data that fuels personalization, immediately measures performance, and automates optimization to drive ROAS. 

Ad servers are capable of transforming everyday advertising into direct value for your business. The right ad server can drive outcomes and brand growth. Going without an independent ad server is like choosing to ditch your smartphone. Here are some key benefits of modern ad servers:  

1. Save time and money

To put things into perspective, getting a digital campaign live entails tons of steps—from choosing the publisher to developing and sharing the creative to deciding who will handle the trafficking of the ad. For those with multiple publishers, this process grows exponentially. Meaning, the risk of manual human error increases too.

Things can get even more complicated with programmatic buys, and thus centralizing the process with an ad server has plenty of benefits. Consider this, every programmatic ad campaign is measured in conversions. Bring an ad server into the mix and you gain the ability to track targeted user actions for additional performance optimization all in a single platform. Consequently, establishing a more efficient media buying and optimization process.

Even on a basic level of ad sophistication, running ads on multiple websites and devices takes a huge amount of effort and management. Instead, an ad server establishes a centralized place for running across all channels. And when all of your creatives are funneled through your ad server you gain agility. So if you have a minor or major change, you can implement it in bulk from 1 place. 

Ultimately you cut costs, reduce time, and better maximize your advertising investment.

2. Eliminate silos 

An ad server allows you to measure performance and audience analytics in real-time, across all of your inventory too. With this information you can build strategies for your ad server and apply them to future campaigns, boosting relevancy. Without an ad server, you’d have to manually string this data together. One step further, working with an ad server that is certified to run across media partners (and even disparate walled gardens) eliminates fragmentation for a quicker, more informed process. Additionally, native in-platform integrations allow you to automate activation with key partners without the back and forth a typically manual process would entail. 

3. Automate without error 

Automated workflows means you vastly reduce the chance of human error. Typically, marketers would send Excel sheets to multiple partners via downloads and emails. With an ad server, you can remove plenty of the manual processes like third-party tagging. Additionally, you can enable automation with leading verification and research partners, as well as avoid additional, and sometimes hidden, production costs with features like automatic asset encoding. 

4. Cross-platform measure you can trust 

On the flip side, you can see your efforts across the board to make more informed strategic decisions. Answer questions like, does a certain message resonate with audiences across every channel? Does a certain channel or creative warrant more investment? Etc, etc. With an ad server, you’re empowered to evaluate channels by conversions and make real-time media optimization decisions, improving your overall campaign ROI.

5. Own your data 

Digital advertising is chock-full of nuances–which also means frequent discrepancies. While the same language may be used to define similar metrics, the methodology may differ vastly. Even the simplest of metrics, like an impression, could be calculated very differently across publishers. For example, an impression could be counted when the publisher calls the ad server to deliver it. But it could also be counted when the ad actually starts or finishes loading on the webpage.

Without that single source of truth, your data is subject to losing key insights, being swayed by any biases, or being used by a third party. Instead, an ad server provides a complete and unrepeated view of your audience that you have ownership over–eliminating media sales conflicts and potential reporting biases. 

What are the capabilities of an ad server? 

While not all ad servers have every capability listed below, here is generally what you can expect (and should look out for) in an ad server. 

Ad creative upload: Seamlessly bring your creatives onto your ad server with support of all standard sizes aligned with Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) formats–including text, image, video, audio, HTML display, and more. 

Serving strategy: Set various triggers by location, time, behavioral, device, and other factors for your ads to be shown.

Campaign scheduling: Pre-set and adjust the dates your campaigns will run. 

Ad tracking: Gain visibility into the effectiveness of your creative content and gain reporting that’s reflective of creative performance aligned with the Media Ratings Council (MRC). 

Creative validation: Ensure your creatives are uploaded with the proper specifications to run across all publishers within your media plan. 

Impression monitoring: Roll out your ads evenly or as quickly as possible–with an ad server, you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to impression delivery. 

Ad delivery: Push your ads out with the guarantee that they’ll show up on time and in the intended manner and quality. 

Optimization automations: Automate your highest performing ads to be served more often and vice-versa.  

Analytics reporting: Insights into real-time performance (clicks, impressions, etc.)  through one view across your channels to continuously optimize your campaigns.

Conversion reporting: Access performance data that ties to business objectives. 

Retargeting: Re-engage users who have seen your ads with additional creatives that match the audience set tied to conversions. 

Sequential messaging: With sequential messaging, you’re able to set a specific order for your ads to appear to tell a story and/or direct users to the right message for them. 

Final thoughts and takeaways 

Now it's time for the big question–do you need an ad server? In short, yes. Sure, you can still advertise digitally without one. But it’s going to be a heck of a lot harder and more time consuming. 

Without an ad server, you’ll have to deal with challenges like discrepancies in publisher methodologies for counting impressions and adhering to each unique publisher’s creative requirements (which drains time). Plus, your brand will miss out on the capabilities that your competitors are likely embracing right now. 

Instead, an ad server provides centralized analytics reporting across various publisher formats to provide your campaign performance in real time. You gain a reliable source of truth for verifying your data accuracy. 

There are plenty of ad servers out there to choose from. Which one you choose will largely depend on your brand’s specific needs. Adopting one primary ad server for TV, video, display, social, and audio like Innovid is a good bet. Especially since it enables scale, dynamic creatives, creative management, personalization, and in-depth cross-platform measurement solutions, making it a good bet for your current and future campaigns. 

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