Traditional broadcasters might soon bridge linear and digital ad buying.
But first, baby steps. Before anyone reaches that holy grail, it helps if the ad inventory is trafficked through the same system.
So in the spirit of unification, the video ad server FreeWheel said Wednesday that it will handle decisioning for NBCUniversal’s digital and linear inventory. Both FreeWheel and NBCU are owned by Comcast.
“This is the first time a digital system is being used to make recommendations on how to optimize linear spot schedules,” said James Rooke, GM of FreeWheel Publishers. “It’s using a digital brain to make linear spot decisions to maximize yield and limit liabilities.”
The logic behind how ads are placed and shown on television is very different from the logic behind how ads are placed and shown in digital environments.
“Linear scheduling right now is more of an airline problem: Just make sure everyone gets a seat and they either sit with someone they want to sit next to or don’t sit with someone they don’t,” said Mike Mayer, sales solutions EVP at NBCU.
The intelligence powering linear TV scheduling doesn’t need to be anything more than basic: Make sure an advertiser has a 30-minute separation between when its advertisements air, for instance, or ensure spots from competitive companies aren’t placed next to each other.
But a digital system like FreeWheel can incorporate more sophisticated considerations into its decisioning, including ratings or targeting parameters.
Slow your roll
Lest the hype machine overheat, understand that NBCU’s ad trafficking transition will be incremental.
In time, NBCU’s connection with FreeWheel might impact the ad sales process, assuming the chips fall correctly. If FreeWheel knows which units were sold contextually, on an audience basis, used discrete targeting or are based off Nielsen, it can determine the best placement for each unit.
In the immediate future, NBCU is focused on one thing: “The first step is handing [linear ad serving] over to FreeWheel,” Mayer said. “Then we’ll add more sophistication.”
NBCU used Operative for linear ad trafficking, and it will migrate that entire capability over to FreeWheel.
The broadcaster will start with the small network CNBC World to test for technical hiccups. Over the next six to eight months, it will migrate all of its networks onto FreeWheel, so by the end of 2019, FreeWheel will make decisions on 90% of NBCU’s ad units. That’s more automation than what is currently provided by Operative, which schedules 60%-70% of NBCU’s linear units.
(Operative isn’t on the outs at NBCU. It still maintains a heavy footprint, including building logs, maintaining the copy library and acting as the company’s sales system, but it won’t handle ad trafficking anymore. Also, Operative and FreeWheel very recently worked together to converge the buying of addressable TV and digital inventory.)
Trafficking all ad units through a common ad server could eventually impact how inventory is priced, create new forecasting capabilities and catalyze some sophisticated connections into a programmatic exchange, but that’s all future thinking for now.
At the moment, NBCU just wants to make better ad scheduling decisions.
“We’re going to place the [airline] seats a little bit better and a little bit better,” Mayer said. “As soon as we’re done with that, we’ll look at the piece on how we connect the linear to digital.”
The beginning of the video ad-server wars?
The ability to combine linear and digital deals is a major ambition for both traditional broadcasters and ad tech companies – particularly Google, which doesn’t wield the same influence over TV ad spend as it does with digital.
But Google’s saber is definitely rattling, as it recently poached The Walt Disney Company’s business from FreeWheel.
“When we do a deal with The Walt Disney Company, it lets us power their ad serving across all those platforms, whether it’s traditional television or desktop,” said Google’s VP of ad platforms Sean Downey last week at AdExchanger’s Industry Preview conference. “It’ll eventually give the advertiser base the ability to do a holistic deal around the types of people they want to advertise against, the right shows and to be on the right platform.”
But Rooke distinguished FreeWheel’s approach from Google’s.
“While Google is focused on optimizing between display and digital video, FreeWheel is accelerating its efforts in unifying video across digital and linear to solve for quality scale on behalf of the industry,” he said.