Media Buying 101: Why You Need Your Own Ad Server

As an advertiser, there is no better way to purchase massive amounts of online display ad inventory than directly from publishers or ad networks. Granted, there is more legwork involved when compared to programmatic buying, and the CPM rates can be quite high — but this is offset by the ability to reserve large amounts of inventory.

When you’re buying media in bulk, the need for a proper ad server is very important in terms of controlling your ad operations. You could say that it’s a best practice to use your own ad server, especially if you run a consistent volume of ad campaigns.

How Ad Servers Work Together

To illustrate why you need your own ad server, it is important to first understand how ad servers work. In the below example, the advertiser’s ad server is managing its campaigns across four different publishers. This is accomplished by providing each publisher with their own unique “ad tag” script (generated by the advertiser’s ad server), which the publisher then inserts into its ad server associated with the corresponding website.

How ad servers work when orchestrating direct buys

You might be asking yourself: “If the publisher has an ad server, why would I need my own?” Here are seven reasons.

1. Accountability

Tracking your own campaign statistics is probably the most important reason you should have your own ad server. When you’ve been around the online advertising space long enough, you come to realize that some degree of discrepancy is inevitable. Mid single-digits percentages are pretty normal, though it can vary wildly in different cases. With so many different ad tags being served by so many different ad servers in various locations around the world, it really shouldn’t be surprising that reporting will differ to some degree.

Without your own ad server, you have no independent stats against which to audit the results being reported by the publisher. The old adage “trust, but verify” holds true when it comes to buying online media. Having your own ad server allows you to keep publishers and ad networks accountable.

2. Creative Control

Giving a publisher or ad network your ad tags to run in their ad server gives you control over what ads are served to which users, and how. From a creative perspective (depending on the ad server you use), you can have more control over the format of your ads, such as running text ads, video ads  or expandable ads.

Beyond control of the ad formats being run, using your own ad server affords you the ability to optimize delivery of your ads as well. Your ad server can give you the ability to split-test different ads and weight which will be shown accordingly.

3. Insights

Not using your own ad server means that you are at the mercy of the publisher’s when it comes to mining campaign insights. The fact that reporting transparency differs from publisher to publisher means that you will likely be left with an incomplete picture.

Using your own ad server provides you with the greatest possible transparency into the performance of your campaigns, giving you insights that otherwise would not be visible. Using your own ad server, you can look at placement stats, geographic stats, creative stats, and hourly stats, all on multiple levels, to determine what is and what isn’t working.

4. Centralized Management

Without your own ad server powering your direct buys, you will oftentimes have to rely on the publisher’s ad operations team to create and manage your campaigns. Multiply this by the number of publishers you work with, and you can imagine how the logistical complexity increases dramatically.

With your own ad server, you centralize management of your campaigns across all the publishers that you work with. You also aggregate all of your campaign statistics in a single database. The benefit of this approach is invaluable, which leads to the next reason to have your own ad server.

5. Data Ownership

One of the strongest arguments for using your own ad server, in my opinion, is that you own and control all of your campaign data. If you don’t have your own ad server and simply rely on publishers, you forfeit ownership and control over your own reporting. Trust me on this one: you don’t want to be beholden to a publisher or ad network for your historical campaign data.

6. Data Freshness

Publisher reporting practices vary. Some will report campaign results daily, weekly, even monthly. Oftentimes, this will come in the form of an email attachment. For some advertisers, this delay is acceptable; for performance-driven marketers optimizing toward an effective goal, such delays can mean costly, wasted ad spend.

In most cases, 3rd-party ad server reporting is close to real time. Having your own ad server allows you to see exactly how your campaigns are performing – up to the minute. This real-time reporting is essential to making timely and actionable decisions.

7. Data Privacy

If the goal of your campaigns is return on ad spend (ROAS), you will obviously want to be tracking revenue. However, you probably don’t want publishers knowing how much you profit on their ad inventory (for obvious reasons). Your own ad server gives you a discrete platform to confidentially track your campaign performance metrics.

The Caveat: Cost

Having the luxury of your own ad server typically isn’t free. There are some ad servers that offer free ad serving up to a certain number of impressions, but any serious media buyer will blow those limits away fairly quickly. The general cost of ad serving is anywhere from $0.01 to $0.10 CPM. You will also need to factor in content delivery network (CDN) costs, which are passed along to advertisers and range from $0.02 to $0.06 per gigabyte of transfer.

Checks & Balances

By not using your own ad server, you are pretty much flying blind and giving publishers all the power in the relationship. From a business perspective, it’s simply not prudent. This fact becomes especially important if you are doing any degree of high-volume media buying across multiple publishers.

Using your own ad server adds checks and balances to the process of media buying. It also adds a level of consistency for the media buyer, allowing all campaigns to be managed from a single point of control. While the publisher ultimately controls the flow of traffic, you can keep things on an even keel by leveraging a platform of your own to control and monitor the ad campaigns that get served — and ensure you are getting what you paid for.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Display Advertising | Display Advertising | Display Advertising Column


About The Author: is the Senior Director of Product at SiteScout, a leading self-serve platform for buying display ads on the web and on mobile devices. He regularly writes on the topics of display advertising and real-time bidding (RTB). He is also the primary author of the SiteScout Blog and Knowledge Center. You can follow him on Twitter at @ratkovidakovic.

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  • Tim Mayer

    Hi Ratko
    Nice article. I agree with the article just wondering why you are assuming a 3rd party ad server is the way to go rather than a first party ad server in your chart. Seems that given the changes happening in the marketplace with Firefox and other browsers not accpeting 3rd party cookies this would be better off left open or be fodder for another article. With a First-Party ad server reasons 1,3 and 7 would be a lot stronger.
    Thanks, Tim

  • Jameel Johnson

    This was an excellent article. I agree that owning your own ad server is essential to really be able to progress in this industry. What are your suggestions as far as media marketing?

  • Rob Mence

    Great article and worth reading for media buyers quizzing why they need an adserver. All solid points & especially to really understand your performance.


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