The Interactive Advertising Bureau may finally be making some headway on a three-year-old initiative to standardize the online media buying process. It’s not quite a cure for the common cold, but creating common buying and selling protocols for online advertising could soothe many of the digital industry’s ills.
The IAB and its working group partners are preparing to expand the beta program for the IAB's E-Business Interactive Standards initiative after making progress recently on a couple of key fronts. The project dates all the way back to 2008, when the IAB’s Ad Ops Council released a preliminary set of communication standards and system requirements for the electronic delivery and receipt of RFPs, proposals and insertion orders (IOs).
Standardizing these three key pieces of the media buying process would be a crucial step in automating what many publishers and advertisers acknowledge is an inefficient digital advertising supply chain.
“It’s almost embarrassing to say that in this highly advanced industry, the process of RFPs and IOs is still done by fax machines and email and traditional signatures,” Steve Sullivan, the IAB’s vice president of digital supply chain solutions, said in a recent interview. “There’s no reason why two systems – one that manages inventory and one that manages campaigns – can’t communicate between themselves using a common protocol.”
The IAB believes its e-business interactive standards will deliver this functionality. To date, a working group comprising a handful of buy- and sell-side platform providers, including Donovan Data Systems, Operative and Univision Interactive Media, has defined functional requirements, technical specifications and XML schemas for conducting these transactions online. In effect, they’ve created a common language – down to basic terminology such as “trading partner” – that all participants can incorporate into their campaign management and other systems to transact more efficiently.
“We tried to find greatest common denominator between what agencies were asking for and what publishers needed to communicate,” said Geoff Petkus, senior director of product management at Operative, which makes a suite of advertising business management tools called Operative.One.
The IAB working group spent much of the past year defining functional workflows for the RFP and first-proposal stages of a media buy and performing proof-of-concept tests using their own platforms. The next step, currently under way, involves creating a centralized registry that can house basic information about publishers.
“It became clear that before we could go much further we needed a centralized database that houses information about the participants,” said Sullivan. “It’s the one piece that needs to be centralized.” The rest of the standard outlines peer-to-peer communication between buyers and sellers, using code embedded directly in their systems, instead of through a third-party clearinghouse.
After initial development of the registry stalled – a hiccup that Sullivan attributed to a lack of resources – the IAB brought on a new developer late last year to take on this piece of the project. The developer, a small Seattle-based firm called FDG Web, has implemented an agile development approach to incorporate existing specs and new schema from each of the participating vendors, according to Thomas Granger, FDG’s executive director. The methodical process is marked by twice-a-month conference calls involving as many as 30 people from the working group companies.
To date, FDG Web has created a “thin layer of functionality” around the use cases that have been developed for the repository, said Granger. His goal is to have a “usable” registry in place for the working group by midyear.
At that point, the group can expand the beta program to bring in more agencies, publishers and their respective campaign management and ad operations systems. Sullivan would like to have something tangible to show at the IAB’s Ad Operations summit in November.
Standardized protocols and systems that can talk to one another would greatly improve the efficiency of the media buying process, which currently consists of a jumble of Excel spreadsheets, PDF documents and proprietary systems.
“The process is still very fragmented,” said Petkus. “There’s no common format that lets a publisher create a common proposal and know it will be accepted.”
In addition to improving efficiencies on the front end, e-business standards could also enhance the accuracy and transparency of campaigns as well as billing processes. Common protocols would provide more consistency between the programs agencies think they’re buying and the inventory that publishers are actually selling.
“The panacea is for a media planner to put out an RFP via their campaign management system, respond to a proposal, and ultimately book inventory without ever having to go to their email or pick up the telephone,” said Sullivan.
Harvey Kent, chief media strategist at Donovan Data Systems, believes the standards will also provide opportunities for smaller publishers to compete for more ad dollars. “These e-business transactions will make smaller publishers more accessible,” he said. “So this could be amazingly beneficial from a long-tail point of view.”
Talking to the players involved, one can’t help but sense a hint of frustration about the pace of the project. (The completed standards were originally expected in late 2009.) But Petkus and others preach patience. “As much as people want this to go fast, these types of industry initiatives take a while,” Petkus said. “Consolidating and coalition-building across different systems takes time.”