How to Pick an Ad Server – Insight of Value

Tom Hespos published an article today in iMedia, “How to Pick an Ad Server,” that get’s an A-.  He did a great job of outlining the basics of asking the most common questions about what someone should look for when they begin to conduct a search for an ad server and I commend him on posting this article.

Something important that I believe he left out is gaining insight into experience that companies have had with ad servers directly.  This is not just about references.  Many companies have worked with more than one ad server.  Or many contacts have been with more than one agency and have experience with more than one ad server.

The industry is dominated by three major players, DoubleClick who has about 50% market share, Atlas with about 25% market share and Mediaplex with about 15% marketshare.  These are rough estimates.  The remaining players like Fauk (now DC), TruEffect and Zedo (and others) have the rest of the market.  Deep pockets, tenure and long-standing relationships have resulted in these splits.  But it is important to understand that market positions do not necessarily represent stature.  Biggest doesn’t mean best (think Hertz) and number two does not necessarily mean we try harder (think Avis). 

Reputations mean a lot and Tom’s suggestion of references is very important.  Asking for a reference for someone that recently switched ad servers is sometimes more important than getting a reference for a long-standing client.  For example, I have acquired clients from other ad servers based on poor experiences.  My experience tells me that Atlas is the most expensive with poor customer support.  DoubleClick is the big boy on the block and therefore the least accommodating, even though they offer competitive pricing.  Mediaplex is one of the cheapest with a good product.  Zedo is rock-bottom prices (they give away services for 3 mos so its hard to bounce back to competitive rates) but their services are rife with problems.  TruEffect is not well known, although its predecessor MatchLogic is.

When it comes to capabilities, most of the ad servers all do the same things – manage campaigns, handle rich media, provide targeting (Geo, day-parts, cookie-targeting, etc.) and have a library of reports plus custom reporting.  The larger ad servers nickel-and-dime for any custom reporting or custom-services while the smaller ones, like TruEffect, go out of their way with custom services at no additional costs.

Customer service is a huge differentiator.  Atlas has a poor reputation in the industry, Mediplex has a good reputation, DoubleClick offers a help-desk so there is no personal relationship, and the same goes for Zedo.  Trueffect offers an assigned Account Manager so their is a specific relationship established between the client and the ad server.  This comes from the enterprise-management days of MatchLogic.

In the end though, Tom is right.  When shopping for an ad server, one needs to create a list of needs and wants and then shop the market.  The references are key and are telling.  Test-driving with pilots are a good route to go if you can stomach it.  Rates are flexible and should be tiered to reward growth – flat rates are passe.  Signup fees are negotiable as are training fees.

My suggestion is to always start with the smaller ad servers before shopping the larger.  It will put you in a better position for negotiation.  I find myself educating buyers as a solution-seller, whether I win the business or not.  I help buyers position themselves to make the best decision for themselves.  In the end if I win the business, its because I have the best solution.  If I don’t, it’s because someone else had a better solution for that particular situation.

Tom made one more good point.  Ad serving is a cost to your operation and can be efficient if you land with the right one, or it can be an inefficient hassle.  It’s worth shopping and spending the time on it up front.  Making sure that you will have a relationship with someone who is responsive to your needs on an ongoing basis.  Ensure that you will create a working relationship that is positive and reflecting a beneficial component of your online advertising management process is paramount to your business.  It should evolve into a long-lasting relationship.  The switching cost of changing ad servers is not high, just frustrating.

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