Ad insertion gets more dynamic

  • With Kevin Hilton

Ad insertion gets more dynamic

With both OTT and linear television services adopting more automated and personalised advertising techniques, the divisions between the two areas are becoming less defined. As contributing editor Kevin Hilton discovers, dynamic ad insertion is levelling the playing field, especially when it comes to the growing sector of FAST channels...

The world of broadcast television technology is littered with initials and acronyms for the various systems, techniques and devices that have appeared over its relatively short history. These have usually been spread out over different areas, so it is somewhat disconcerting to come across a whole slew of initialisms concentrated in a single discipline. DAI, standing for dynamic ad insertion, is an umbrella term that now encompasses many other abbreviations, including SSAI (server-side ad insertion), CSAI (client-side ad insertion) and FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV).

In many respects this illustrates the importance and breadth of DAI in today's technologically diverse 'broadcast' market, with its wide array of distribution platforms and receiving devices. DAI first came to prominence in digital media, providing the basis for targeted advertising on Facebook, Google and other online sites. In the last few years it has, as Mathias Guille, Vice President for Cloud Platform at Broadpeak, observes, expanded into both OTT streaming and linear TV, although each has its own specific requirements.

"While there is convergence, some differences still exist," Guille explains. "Linear TV generally reaches a more extensive, broader audience with less targeting flexibility, while OTT provides granular user data for personalised ad insertion. In this way, linear TV is typically one-to-many while OTT is one-to-one. Historically, linear TV has dealt with ads by delivering regional versions of the national channel, replacing a subpart of the ads with regional commercials. OTT has DAI built-in with the HTTP capacity to deliver one stream per user, making targeted advertising easier to integrate."

This distinction is beginning to change, however, due to increasing use of addressable TV (also known as segmented TV) for linear broadcasting. "Because of this we're moving toward a more unified approach," Guille comments. "It's about optimising ad delivery across all platforms to provide a consistent, seamless viewer experience for both linear and OTT. Both are using the SSAI concept and leverage manifest manipulation (or video stitching). You can then unify the campaigns across both platforms. However, factors like local regulation, measurement standards, and technological infrastructure can still differ."

Tony Jones, Principal Technologist with MediaKind, also sees what he describes as a "general trend" towards server-side working over the over the last year, particularly as operations grow in scale. "When operators start out it's quite tempting to use the client-side way of working because it's relatively simple to set up," he says. "There are fewer parties involved and it's an easy way to get going. But as the number of viewers increases and the value of that advertising slot become greater, you have to think about more robustness and reliability in the system."

Jones explains that SSAI has "a number of benefits", including not having the uncertainty of what a manifest is going to look like. "You can verify what you're going to put in the advertising breaks is actually there and that they're going to work correctly," he says. "It's a more industrial and robust system. There are disadvantages, of course. It's a bit more complex - the ad decision-making process is not distributed and the position of the ads has to be linked into the manifest manipulation, which is slightly different to client-side, although that processing resource can be scaled up or down if it's cloud-based, - but it seems to be the way the market is moving as it becomes a more important part of the revenue stream in streaming advertising. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages."

Ahmed Swidan, Director of Personalised TV solutions for Ateme, agrees that many of the developments in DAI over the past few years have primarily involved SSAI. "Vendors have been focusing on building their own SSAI solutions that scale well with traffic spikes while accommodating as many features as possible," he says. When it comes to FAST, Swidan sees channels running on this model requiring specific DAI features: "For example, ad breaks might have to split between two different ad servers, as this could be a business requirement between the content owner and the FAST platform.

"The monetisation of FAST channels also calls for complementing the targeting parameters with the context of the content to increase the value of the inventory."

The swing away from client-side to server-side is also being seen at Amagi, where Co-founder and Chief Revenue Officer Srinivasan KA observes that SSAI is now being taken more seriously. "This is mainly because people have seen there is value in it, especially as more smart TVs are being manufactured and sold," he says. "There is now more adoption of SSAI and it is getting the prime time it deserves. The challenges in broadcast and streaming advertising, in terms of how those streams are [working with] ad markers and how the ads are being fetched, are becoming prominent. In terms of distribution we have to look at how SSAI connects with other systems along the chain so it can provide its value. Another challenge is monetisation, because people may want more features, such as L-band advertising [short duration ads along one side of the screen], interactivity or internet connectivity."

While linear TV has been moving more towards the streaming model by offering non-linear, on-demand platforms alongside established channels, there has been the recent and slightly ironic shift of some OTT services towards a more traditional scheduled format in the form of FAST channels. Despite this, KA comments that it is linear TV that still has to make the transition when it comes to FAST: "How do you reimagine linear channels with personalised, internet-connected features and grow both the audience and the engagement with them? From the viewer point of view, the lines are blurring. Linear is shifting to smart TV, so the differences are becoming very vague. There is really no distinction between OTT and linear TV as far as the viewers are concerned. From the DAI side as well, the products that were used for OTT and linear used to be slightly different. But with linear coming on to smart TVs now, there is not much difference when it comes to DAI any more."

Rob Gambino, Head of Advertising and Personalisation Strategy at Harmonic, feels there "definitely are still differences" between the two formats but that these will "work themselves out" as both markets mature.

"Linear TV, for example, still sells most of its inventory directly and in most instances lacks a lot of the frequency control and targeting capabilities of OTT," he says. "Conversely, OTT has embraced programmatic from the start but CPMs [cost per mille or thousands] often suffer from a lack of investment from high-value brands and some implementations aren't taking full advantage of the real reason to do programmatic - deep targeting with strong frequency controls - which give the user the best experience and the advertiser the best return on investment."

Programmatic advertising is a relatively new method of buying and selling advertisements based on automation and algorithmic tools. Gambino explains that linear TV companies are beginning to catch up with OTT and connected TV through its use. "They're starting by replicating directly sold inventory while slowly adding in programmatic," he says. "The pure OTT streamers are doing more interesting things, such as targeting on a per-user basis against both geographic and demographic data. This presents technical challenges, as you have to deliver a unique manifest per user."

Like other manufacturers in the DAI, Harmonic has been developing new technologies to integrate into existing products. One of these is dynamic brand insertion (also known as virtual product placement), which is available in the VOS Ad SSAI platform. "Using AI, we identify areas in content where branding can be inserted and targeted against viewer demographics, which creates new ad inventory for high value advertisers," Gambino explains. "We've developed a number of technology partnerships to make targeting easier and to expand ad inventory for broadcasters. AI/ML technology has really exploded recently, making it much easier to categorise content and consumers' viewing habits."

Another potential use for AI is highlighted by Tony Jones at MediaKind, who says it could be deployed to work out where to place ads in FAST streams. "The FAST channels are leading the way into a cloud-based, high-level of automation [scenario] that probably the broadcast channels will follow too," he says. "Ultimately, it's the same kind of infrastructure that goes in place. But what does seem different for the FAST channels is, because they're probably having to deal with less well supported content in terms of metadata, there might be more a case for trying to figure out where to put advertising within programmes. There's an argument this might be a good use of AI to detect reasonable places to put advert breaks without slicing into the middle of a scene, which could happen if there isn't the necessary metadata and the system operates purely on time."

For DAI in general, with companies such as MediaKind seeing advertising-based services becoming increasingly popular, the challenge is to implement more automation and metadata on the technical side while also having the management policies to ensure the right ads reach the right regions or individuals without repetition in the scheduling. Which may mean more new technologies with more initials in a niche sector that looks set to only become more crucial to the business of broadcast and streaming in the future.