The rise of native and the changing role of the third party ad server

In an industry with a habit of regular reinvention, it can be hard to tell which innovations will be a passing fad and which will drive a significant shift in gear.

Right now, it’s apparent native advertising is one trend set to permanently alter the direction of digital travel. And for third-party ad servers this will mean big changes. 

Accounting for 29% of UK display ad spend, native advertising — bespoke ads that take on the look of surrounding content — is already moving the flow of online budgets and it’s set to imminently alter delivery too. IAB guidelines predict the intelligence that compiles native ads will soon sit on the publisher site, rather than with third-party ad server.

In brief, this means the days of the current system — where publishers host tags that send creative to third-party servers for delivery — could be numbered. Third party ad severs may deliver assets such as video or text, but as hosts, publishers will hold the main assembly role.

So, in the face of this change it’s clear third-party ad servers need to enhance their own role and become more than just delivery experts.

The only question is: how?

Before diving into the evolution of third-party ad servers, it’s important to note that they will always be needed. While many publishers now view native as a branch of editorial content that should be managed internally, there is a crucial flaw in this approach: reducing usage of ad servers, and their data capabilities, restricts scale and efficiency. Thus, this method isn’t sustainable in the long-term. But, third-party ad servers must still diversify if they’re to retain relevance, specifically expanding their remit from delivery to full campaign management.

If the assembly role of native ads shifts to publishers, third-party ad servers will need to offer marketers a one-stop-shop for each stage of a campaign — from initial ad building to delivery and in-depth reporting. By enabling marketers to create ads, purchase media space, optimise performance and measure impact within a single system, ad servers can become all-encompassing, flexible platforms that are integral to advertising success.

Yet with so many different platforms already in existence it will also be vital for ad servers to differentiate their offering by providing omni-channel planning and targeting ability. Today’s consumers want everything to be personalised, which means marketers require platforms that can reach and track individuals at every touchpoint along the purchase funnel; blending data from multiple channels — and devices — and instantly turning it into actionable insight that is used to deliver relevant, inspiring creative on any screen. Techniques such as dynamic creative, which leverages real time insight to adjust ad creative according to numerous variables from location to the weather, are in ever higher demand, as marketers strive to achieve ultimate contextual relevance. So platforms that make such abilities easy and fast to use during campaign planning and execution — be that via a simple dashboard or visual workflow — have a better chance of standing out.  

Fundamental to all of the above is, of course, strong reporting and analysis. Competition for consumer attention is fierce and to capture interest in the moment, marketers need to know what is working and what isn’t. Furthermore, to ensure budgets are well spent and results are maximised, it’s also vital to obtain an instant view of in-flight performance so they can identify which channels and messages individuals engage with. Consequently instead of providing insight after the fact, platforms should focus on generating real-time, event-based data streams marketers can use to adapt live campaigns, as well future strategy.

Last but not least, there’s the necessity of interoperability. One of the biggest barriers to consistent omni-channel marketing is that many platforms run on siloed systems, which makes it hard to combine data streams from different vendors and translate them into a single, complete view of each customer. It is therefore paramount that when entering the market, third-party ad servers turned all-inclusive platforms are able to integrate and assess data from any source — whether it’s the marketer’s data management platform (DMP) or insight from their customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Although the ascent of publishers as ad serving hosts is likely to be short-lived, the rise of new formats like native ads and the growing need for technology providers to diversify is not. Third-party ad servers will remain a vital part of the digital advertising ecosystem, but by enhancing their functionality as campaign management platforms they can bag themselves a starring role in the future of the industry.  

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