Ad Servers: Air Traffic Control for Programmatic Display

airtrafficcontrolWorking in PPC, we take for granted the ad platforms we have. Programmatic display ads have been around for awhile, but by and large required a whole different skillset, and different business model. As companies move more towards integrated marketing and understanding that it takes several touch points before a user becomes a customer, programmatic has started to be a little more ingrained with other channels. As a PPCer, you run into it more on larger accounts these days than the days when things were more silo’d in nature. Some folks still bicker about what exactly “programmatic” refers to, and how to define it.

The bones of ad serving

When you are a web user, you go to a site and you see ads. Do you know how they actually get there?

When you hit a webpage, the page is actually like Swiss cheese. There are holes where all of those ads get populated. In milliseconds, your data (if you have any that’s relevant) is passed to the ad server, and the server populates an ad on the page.

The ad will vary based on many things, including whether you are being specifically targeted as part of the buy, the advertiser’s bid, etc.

The ad server does that heavy lifting. It plays matchmaker between a user hitting a page, and connecting it to the ad creative to be shown.

How does this work on the back end?

I’ve had PPCers ask me how ad servers work before, which makes sense since the platforms we tend to use handle a lot of the grunt work. We don’t need to know the technicalities, because we upload things into Google to run display and things magically happen.

I previously worked at an agency that specialized in programmatic display, and it’s worth understanding how this stuff works.

Ad servers are like your air traffic controller for your ads and where they run. You perform a lot of the same functions in them that you would in the AdWords interface, in that you upload your creative to them, generate tracking pixels, etc. They track your impressions, clicks, and all of that good stuff. The main difference is it’s not directly attached to a media platform like AdWords is with Google Display Network.

When you get everything set up and your creative uploaded into your ad server, you then generate what are known as “ad tags.” These are lines of code that get trafficked out to the media exchanges that will be running your ads.

They put these tags into THEIR server. Got that? So you have two ad servers at work: yours and the one the exchange runs.

So, it goes like this:

  1. User comes to the web page.
  2. The exchange’s ad server populates your tag.
  3. That tag pulls in or “calls” your ad creative to fill that Swiss cheese hole in the page.

Why have two ad servers involved?

When you run display, you can either upload your creative into your own ad server, or you can have the exchange handling your media do it (known as who is “hosting” the creative).

The drawback to the latter is that every time you want to change out your creative, you have to email it over to the exchange, there might be a delay in their uploading it, etc. When you host the creative yourself, you can change it out as often as you want, and it updates seamlessly to show it in the tags you already sent to your exchange partners.

The other benefit to having your own ad server involved is you can see campaign progress without having to ask for a report or get a login somewhere to your exchange vendor’s site. You’ll know your impressions are running, what your CTR is, etc. You can read more about this topic here.

Understanding these fundamentals is the first step to understanding some other differences between programmatic and the type of PPC platforms we are more used to running. Stay tuned for future entries on other “good to know” programmatic basics!