Why the IAB’s recently released dynamic ad standard is a game-changer

At the dmexco conference last year, I had an opportunity to meet Rob Norman, Chief Digital Officer at GroupM. After some discussion, Rob turned to me and said "we have done a good job solving the distribution problem in digital advertising, but we need to solve the manufacturing problem". I am sure anyone in the creative side of advertising would cringe at the thought of "manufacturing" ads, but I think Rob had a point. The process of producing and delivering creative is dated and needs to be re-invented using technology and data. There is a significant mismatch between the highly automated data-driven, real-time media buying platforms and the manual, clunky and "one-size-fits all" way creative is developed and delivered to consumers today via those platforms.

I had to ponder this again at the Cannes Lions event this year -- the epicenter of creative innovation.

“Are programmatic advertising and creative storytelling finally coming together in a meaningful way?” This debate was front and center at Cannes Lions this year, fueling some of the more interesting – and lively – discussions.

“It's a good question to ask at the Cannes Lions festival, where the whole point is creativity,” said Zach Rodgers, executive editor of AdExchanger, in his post-event analysis. “Or it used to be, before the twin powers of data and media started elbowing in on the joint a few years back.”

“Creatives are still here in vast numbers,” he added, “and numerous remarks made in Cannes this week suggest they and their clients may finally be gearing up for the mass personalization of ad content.”

As it turns out, Rodgers was correct – and prescient. Although it’s long been the industry’s vision, personalized dynamic digital advertising is only now on the verge of becoming a mainstream reality. So what’s been holding it back? In recent years, programmatic media buying platforms very effectively revolutionized the world of media buying and selling, but the missing piece in the dynamic ads puzzle – programmatic and dynamic creative – has been evolving at a much slower pace.

Until now.

Welcome to the Future

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) this week introduced a revolutionary new standard – the first ever – for dynamic digital advertising. Called the IAB Dynamic Content Ad Standard, it provides a detailed schema for how constituents across the digital ad supply chain should define each of the creative components and their asset variations within any ad unit in order to build and serve real-time dynamic content in advertising.

What does this really mean? Here’s a bit of background.

Over the past few years, I’ve been honored to co-chair the IAB Tech Lab’s Working Group developing the IAB Dynamic Content Ad Standard alongside fellow co-chair Cary Tilds, Chief Innovation Officer at GroupM. She and I have long been convinced there must be a better way to scale creative in digital ads without resorting to the boxy, unappealing, hard-coded “one size fits all” templates responsible for so many of today’s ads – these same ads consumers are fighting in growing numbers, armed with increasingly sophisticated ad blockers.

To find a solution, we joined forces with the IAB Tech Lab and a team of 60+ very smart and talented individuals representing some of the biggest brands, agencies, media companies and technology providers in the digital ad ecosystem.

Collectively we had all witnessed what happened when the IAB introduced the very first standards for programmatic media in early 2015. The IAB’s OpenRTB 1.0 specification profoundly changed the digital advertising landscape, bringing unprecedented efficiency and scale to media buying, driving costs down and paving the way for a whole new financial and delivery model for digital ads.

It was, let’s say, Day One of the revolution.

And much like the IAB’s programmatic media standards drove the industry’s massive shift to programmatic media buying, the IAB’s Dynamic Content Ad Standard is laying the groundwork for the second revolution in digital advertising.

It is now Day Two.

If you’re wondering why such standards are so important, consider this: until pieces of software can communicate with each other, or translate what each is saying, there is no hope of personalized digital advertising achieving any kind of scale across any part of the digital ad ecosystem. Like the Babel fish in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, standards remove communication barriers between the many layers of software – in this case creative authoring tools, data-driven personalization platforms, ad servers, DSPs, content management systems and measurement tools – which all have to cooperate in order to deliver and measure creative that is uniquely targeted to each individual.

Opening the Door to Growth in Digital Advertising

Why is this new standard is so important? It truly represents nothing less than the key to unlocking unprecedented growth in the digital ad industry. Here are some of the reasons why.

  • The standard will drive an explosion in the use of metadata for ad creation and delivery.In the grand scheme of personalized digital advertising and marketing, metadata is the unsung hero, the secret sauce. Metadata is how you automate and scale data-driven inputs and outputs, and ad tech has used precious little of it until now. Most of the standards the industry depends upon today are actually more like design specifications – good, solid, detailed specs that have played a formative role in the industry at large, but specs nonetheless. This standard is different. It’s a schema, which means it can be copied, extended, verified and automated. With the release of the IAB’s Dynamic Content Ad Standard, as an industry we are essentially committing to making metadata a fundamental building block for our supply chain.
  • It will pry open the doors of walled gardens, making social media and omnichannel marketing an imminent reality. Google, Facebook and Verizon are having all the fun right now, as millennials, in particular, spend an enormous amount time on their mobile devices, particularly within these walled gardens. We can talk all we want about the potential of digital advertising to reach digital natives, but until ads can be personalized, served and optimized within and outside these gardens simultaneously, our touting of engagement metrics will be largely bluster. The IAB’s new standard gets us on our way toward breaking down the barriers to both in-app and mobile content delivery.

You can actually see for yourself the potential of this standard to do just that in action. via a demo showcased by Jivox on the IAB Tech Lab site demonstrating dynamic ads built using the standard via our own personalization platform. As part of that demo, you can actually download the metadata schema and export it. What this means is we now have a way to translate from a proprietary platform, such as Jivox, into another proprietary platform, such as Facebook, but with an open standard. We can now see the equivalent of “creative exchanges” developing which – much like “media exchanges” – will act as translators between proprietary ad formats.

As it evolves, the standard will future-proof the next wave of creativity, from artificial intelligence and IoT applications to augmented and virtual reality. This new standard will enable an entirely new level of extensibility in the form of standards. In other words, the more your systems are run on metadata, the easier it will be to integrate your technology into the broader marketing cloud and connect up with complementary products. Today, APIs can give you a way into Facebook, Google and Snapchat. But without a common language to describe ads, these APIs will present even more complexity to an already complex ecosystem. Tomorrow, who knows what the favorite destinations will be? What’s abundantly clear is that the only way to prepare for this unknown future is to implement standards such as this one from the IAB which ensure a common language with which to describe ads, regardless of where they are going to be served.

Why is this a game changer?

Rarely is any advance in technology truly game-changing with the power to move markets. The expected impact of the IAB’s new standard across the digital ad ecosystem, however, will be massive and simply cannot be overstated.

The whole digital ecosystem stands to benefit. Consumers will finally see more personally relevant and timely ads integrated into their digital experience. Marketers (brands and agencies) will increase the effectiveness of their campaigns due to increased relevance and timeliness of their messaging and therefore drive more business. Publishers will see users turning off ad blockers, which were largely turned on due to irrelevant ads. And ad tech platforms will benefit by not having to build proprietary vendor integrations to suit the unique requirements of each campaign, thus allowing them to focus on building more useful innovations into their technology.

Many years ago, I sat on the board of a standards organization called the SQL Access Group. This group was formed because while database software had become very popular and getting widespread adoption, these databases could not talk to each other – or to the applications that were built to use such databases. The issue was that application developers could not write a single application that ran well on Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Informix, Sybase and probably another 20 other different databases.

Several of us got together to define a standard version of SQL (Structured Query Language), which became the language databases understood. This went on to become a global standard, was adopted by most database platforms and contributed to a phenomenal amount of growth for the database industry because now an app developer could develop in standard SQL and run on all databases. This became one of the most widely adopted standards in the software industry, and drove the growth of that industry for more than 25 years to reach around $33B in revenue. This in turn spurred the enterprise applications market which now is around $177B in size and is predicted to grow to over $288B by 2024 by Global Market Insights.

With the help of the IAB’s dynamic ad standard, marketers’ ability to deliver precisely tailored and relevant content to each consumer finally becomes possible. It will also allows content to be fluid, and advertising to adapt itself easily to the ever-changing ad formats in which it appears. Regardless of whether they’re in the various “native” formats of social media, VR or on IoT devices, this standard will always allow creative to be described in a language that can be understood and delivered by every one of these new media platforms.

The foundation is ready

The merger between data and creativity is a new discipline, as discussions earlier this year at Cannes Lions made clear.

In fact, one of the jury members for the Creative Data Lions, a new award category recognizing excellence in ads leveraging data, pointed out that merely “fifteen percent of this year’s submissions reflected true collaboration between data and creative elements.”

She added, “At the moment, data-driven creative requires a lot of human investment. If you could, in some way, automate creative outputs, that's potentially a game-changer.”

With the IAB’s new standard providing the foundation, the industry is poised to take a massive leap forward as it unites data and creativity to make truly dynamic digital advertising – finally – a mainstream reality. Similar to the standards I described earlier, this one is a game changer. If you play any part in the digital advertising ecosystem, you would be wise to pay attention, as it will almost certainly be relevant to you.

The standard is open to public comment through November 26, 2016. Before the IAB releases a final version, I strongly encourage you to take a look and send your feedback to the IAB Tech Lab at dynamiccontentads@iab.com.

By Diaz Nesamoney | November 17th, 2016
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