I have been working in ad tech for over three years now. When I started, I never even heard of a web server. Three years later, I was building my own.
When I first moved to the US, I was fortunate enough to get hired by a conglomerate of niche news and content websites. They provided news and content updates to an extremely specific – and loyal – demographic, one that was very difficult to target through Facebook or Google ads.
As a result it was far more profitable for them to sell their ads directly to their advertisers, instead of just relying on Google Adsense. They were able to charge a premium for this direct access and the hand-holding that accompanied placing an ad with them. This last point was crucial, because their advertisers were often less sophisticated, more familiar with print advertising than the whole universe of digital. Part of our service to them was just teaching the basics of Click Through Rates (CTRS), Landing Pages, and A/B testing.
We used a custom coded front-end to serve these clients, powered by an enterprise ad server back end that was very powerful but also very clunky to use. I helped design and develop several key tools in this system that made the sales people’s job infinitely easier, saving them hours of tedious and repetitive work and allowing them to focus on making more phone calls and closing more deals.
Later, I got lucky and became a partner in a local news website catering to a specific geographic area in upstate New York. This site was very outdated, and I helped redesign it, as I had the half a dozen high-traffic sites before. We modernized the front-end design, the editor’s uploading experience, and automated the sharing process to social media and email. Everything was running so much better, and all the remained was to update the way we served ads.
At any given time, we had between and 20 and 30 different advertisers, most of whom had purchased a banner ad on the sidebar of the homepage. Currently, each ad was hard-coded on to the page, which meant it was tedious to add or update ads, there was no tracking of ad performance, and the ads had to be manually randomized to give all advertisers equal exposure.
My Ad Server Wish-list
I set out to research ad servers to implement on my site. My main criteria was the following:
Basic functionality – all I needed was to add advertisers, create a campaign for them, and then upload their media. I needed the ad server to randomly serve their ads and let me know how well they did. That’s about it. I didn’t need advanced bidding functionality, complex zone or campaign segmentation, or custom targeting. “Dude, I just want this banner ad, to show up over here.”
A simple user experience – I wanted just the basics from my ad sever, and I wanted the experience to be simple. Adding new ad zones, creating advertisers, and uploading media should be a simple and straightforward process. Like writing an email.
Integrated billing – if I’m selling ads every day, it makes sense that I’d collect payment for said ads as a prerequisite to uploading the ads to the site. So often, these payments are directly related to how long the ad runs “Your ad will be up for two weeks” or “I’m giving you 1,000,000 impressions”, that it made total sense to integrate the running of the campaign with billing the client for it.
At the content conglomerate I worked for, that’s how they did things, and it made perfect sense. Google and Facebook and all the big ad syndicates do a similar thing – they put your card on file and bill you for your ad usage.
The Frustrating Reality
With this simple list in mind, I set out to look for an ad server, and alas, I was very disappointing. Here’s how things played out in reality, stacked against my initial criteria:
Basic functionality – most ad servers seem to function on a “the more functionality, the better” mentality. And while I can respect that some publishers need all those advanced bells and whistles, for many publishers that’s complete overkill. You end up paying a premium for so many features that you don’t actually use.
Ease of Use – because of all the extra features, or for other reasons unbeknownst to me, the experience of using these ad servers was extremely frustrating. From figuring out how to create an ad zone and add it to my site, to adding a new campaign, everything seemed unecessarily complicated.
I spent a lot of time in particular on Google DFP, a free platform by Google that was supposed to do exactly what I wanted. In reality, adding campaigns was an extremely complicated process and I, a very tech savvy person, would often get it wrong. I’d end up with campaigns that wouldn’t run, and I couldn’t tell if I had configured something incorrectly, or if it was just the hour long delay that it took Google to start running my ads. I wanted my ads up instantly! I came to dread even thinking of setting up another ad campaign on Google DFP.
Integrated billing – this was the real clincher. At my day job, I had taken the integrated billing component for granted. It would have been perfect for my own news website – a customer calls up, we close the deal and take their credit card, bill them and upload their ad, all in one place. Makes perfect sense, right?
No. Not a single ad server that I could find would have anything to do with billing. “Leave that for Quickbooks”, I was told when I inquired. But no one wants to deal with accounting when they’re making sales, and when your systems are completely separated, you often make mistakes and end up with ads running overtime; the system you’re using to understand what your client wants and paid for, is separate from the one that actually delivers the product.
I couldn’t believe it, and after pondering it for months, I resolved to create my own solution. I would have loved to use my company’s platform, but it was custom-built for their specific needs. I would build something that did less things, but what it did do, it would do easily and well. And we’d add billing as a core option to streamline the entire process.
Here are the core things we offer, and make incredibly easy to set up and run:
- Creating new ad zones takes just a few clicks
- Easily add new clients to your dashboard
- Effortlessly visit your client accounts to manage their ads for them – and give them their own access so they can check in on things and make changes themselves
- Quickly create new campaigns and upload creatives to them in a flash
- Display simple analytics for all the campaigns and media you’re running and easily test different versions of your media
- Seamlessly bill clients for their ad campaigns based off criteria you define – by time frame, per impression, or per click
- Start seeing the new ads instantly on your site
Is Ad Pie for everyone? No. Bigger publishers might need advanced features and segmentation that we don’t offer. But we choose to avoid those features deliberately in order to keep things simple for publishers that just need the basics, but want a kick-ass system that gets it done.