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26 May 2022

Slow down SSAI, says Penthera

How refreshing it is to be serendipitously discovering bleeding edge technology vendors at in-person events once again. Faultline’s chance breakfast encounter with OTT vendor Penthera at this week’s OTT.X Fronts event, under the umbrella-draped courtyard of the LA-based Skirball Center, led to an acute diagnosis of the current issues with server-side ad insertion (SSAI) protocols.

The standard method of SSAI at present is that all ad pods for a single title are triggered, decisioned and scheduled in the few milliseconds between a user pressing ‘play’ and playback commencing. Penthera’s SVP of Product and Partnerships, Scott Halpert, says that this can wreak havoc as it puts ads at odds with the standardized ‘time to live’ marker that is used in programmatic workflows.

‘Time to live’ indicates how long a chosen ad has to be legitimately served to a viewer, with the usual time allowed averaging between three to six minutes, according to Halpert. However, with ad pods taking place long after the ‘time to live’ has elapsed, these ads can often be marked as invalid by ad servers. While not irrevocable, sorting out the error with all stakeholders along the ad tech chain can be timely for publishers.

Penthera is therefore launching its first ad tech product, 2nd Look, which aims to punt ad decisioning as close to the relevant ad pod as possible.

Halpert says that 2nd Look can prevent time to live mishaps while simultaneously driving up CPM and render rates – the percentage of ads scheduled for a given title that were actually seen by a viewer. A 50% render rate means that your operational costs have doubled on a per-ad basis, but 2nd Look prevents such occurrences by scheduling ads just before they run.

Giving SSPs and ad servers more time to find advertisers can drive up CPM by increase participation in programmatic bidding. Halpert says that widening the decisioning bracket by just a few hundred milliseconds can see sizable increases in participating advertisers – between 20% and 50%.

Delaying ad decisioning also ensures that ad servers are making the most informed decisions possible. Although ad servers are trying to keep KPIs like CPM and ad frequency in line with targets, an ad’s eligibility to run can change a dozen times between playback beginning and the relevant ad pod. 2nd Look therefore considerably reduces the margin for error by keeping data sources fresh.

2nd Look is currently in proof-of-concept mode, being architected with a top three ad stitcher and a medium sized AVoD platform. Halpert says it has taken a year of development up until now, with a commercial launch slated for next month.

2nd Look can be seen as Penthera’s first attempt to solve problems for vendors and platforms, rather than end users. Until now, the company has been operating as a vendor for QoE and UX tools, all of which seem to pivot around storing portions of content on the device.

Play Assure ensures that some content is always backed-up on the device player to maintain a reliable auto-play, while Fast Play pre-positions the first 30 seconds of various titles on a user’s device to slim down playback response times to near-instant.

As for the Download tool – which does what you would expect – Halpert says that this proved surprisingly popular over the pandemic, despite people relying far less on mobile data. Between 60% and 65% of Penthera’s users watched downloaded content while still connected to a source, leading Halpert to conclude that the main reason for downloading something is consistent video quality, rather than saving on your mobile plan.

These core offerings serve customers like Paramount+, Fox and Sky across 36 countries, but Penthera is now diverting all its R&D and business energies to 2nd Look. Although there is some potential crossover in customers, Halpert says that the 2nd Look sales team will have to engage with completely different sides of these customers.

Halpert says that one huge benefit of ad tech over UX tools is that the value proposition is far more immediate – KPIs like CPM allow Penthera to succinctly show value to its customers, as opposed to more ambiguous, drawn-out data points like churn.

Furthermore, the seamless integration offered by 2nd Look trumps the inevitably clunky nature of Penthera’s other, SDK-based, offerings. “Ripping out an existing download tool to be replaced is a huge headache, even if it is inferior to our offering,” Halpert explained.

Conversely, 2nd Look just requires changing one URL call on the publisher side, so they can keep the same ad stitchers and supply side platforms (SSPs) as it just requires changing one URL call in their backend. Penthera can either middleman between the ad stitcher and origination server, or just work with the ad stitcher in isolation.

With so much hope on 2nd Look, it is no surprise that the core tech behind the offering is currently patent pending. As for copycats, Halpert says that he knows of one tech-savvy publisher that already operates an in-house tool to change HLS VoD manifests into live manifests, loosening up the ad decisioning.

However, Halpert made clear this is not Penthera’s method. Tests found that VoD manifests rely too heavily on the origination server, while live manifests mean that users are unable to scrub back and forth if they missed something. Sticking close to its roots in UX, Penthera decided neither was acceptable.