Unbundling the ad server
The great ad server as we knew it is no more. Contributor Victor Wong takes a look at the evolution of the ad server and what we should expect to see in the future.
When it comes to ad serving, DoubleClick Campaign Manager (DCM) is by far the most widely used product. The ad-serving wars have been fought, and DCM won the biggest piece of the pie.
But when the number one product in a category doesn’t even define itself by the category it’s in, something is going on.
Today, a quick visit to the DCM product page reveals not a single mention of “ad serving.”
While some might argue that this reveals that the brand is totally synonymous with its functionality, that explanation seems unlikely. What if the real reason is that the core functionality of delivering creative assets is simply an afterthought now?
So what happened to the great ad server that was supposed to control everything?
It got unbundled.
A cycle of unbundling
In many software categories, incumbents with seemingly impenetrable businesses wrapped with many peripheral values have been under siege by startups. Offering a bundle of services around the core offering has long protected and benefited incumbents until an unbundler came along, at first taking a small piece with a new angle, but then bigger and bigger pieces.
The unbundler picks one aspect of the larger company and copies it, but does it better, often for a specific niche that has needs that aren’t being fully met.
Craigslist unbundled the newspaper industry by taking out classifieds, and then itself has been unbundled by a range of startups like Airbnb, Chegg, SeatGeek and more. Banks bundled financial services together so that all loan, savings and investment products were under one roof, but then SoFi came along, first taking student loans from banks, then evolving to become a new type of bank. The list goes on.
The ad server has been core to digital advertising since the beginning. For the advertiser, the ad server was where ads were made, trafficked, tracked, measured and optimized.
But today, it’s as common to use just the tracking pixel from an ad server as it is to be serving from the ad server. Successful tech companies have seen the necessity of the ad-serving function and either commoditized it as part of a higher-value bundle or unbundled parts of the value.
There was a time when the speedy and accurate delivery ad of ad files was a critical function in the tech stack. But today, content delivery networks (CDNs) like Akamai, CloudFront, Cloudflare or Google’s own Google Cloud CDN have unbundled the task of enabling massive amounts of files to be uploaded and downloaded across the globe.
And then you have demand-side platforms (DSPs) and walled-garden media platforms, like Facebook, giving away ad serving to sell media.
Of course, the point of advertiser ad servers is partly to verify, but now Integral Ad Science, Moat and DoubleVerify charge more and do more to ensure an ad is actually shown to a person.
But then how do we know if the ad was effective? The ad server is supposed to be the source of truth across media platforms, but in fact, now reporting is unbundled by Datorama and MetaMarkets, while attribution is unbundled by VisualIQ and other multitouch attribution solution providers.
Both the media planning and buying aspects have been peeled away by the DSPs with the promise that they will automatically optimize these functions.
Now, creative production is done in creative management platforms, and creative targeting/optimization is done by dynamic creative optimization or the media platforms themselves.
It’s no wonder that ad serving has gotten so cheap over the years and now goes unmentioned. All the value-add has been taken away, leaving that essential but forgettable category to DoubleClick.
The future of DCM
So, is DCM going to fade away into irrelevance? Probably quite the opposite.
Ad servers like DCM have been unbundled for good reason — they provide the backbone that keeps the massive digital ad industry humming along.
DCM is in the position that it is in because, after all, it’s the ultimate bundle.
So the next major evolution of DoubleClick Campaign Manager won’t be simply an ad server, but something that is once again greater. Something that resets the bundle to what the next generation of customers cares about.
And when that happens, the unbundling cycle will continue.