Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

19 August 2021

SSAI catching eyes of many, but client-side still has work to do

Although server-side ad insertion (SSAI) is going to be increasingly important for its campaign measurement capabilities, as well as its role in maintaining consistency in ad playback quality, client-side ad insertion will not be cast off just yet. That was our main takeaway from a refreshingly informative and opiniated ad tech panel at this year’s Stream TV Ad Summit regarding the pros and cons of SSAI.

Too often ad tech panels sink into circular discussions of self-pity as speakers grapple with the fact that the industry is still miles away from streamlined, standardized technology. Of course, those sentiments were still aired, but not before we got some detailed insights into the utility of the two ad insertion camps.

As for the benefits of SSAI, Mike Woods, SVP of Product at Amagi, was by far the technology’s biggest advocate. He noted the advantages were two-fold – not only does SSAI avoid ad blockers, as it becomes a native part of the video stream, but it allows greater thought to go into the composition of ads on a linear-style channel set-up.

Considering Amagi’s bread and butter business of offering playout to linear style OTT services, it was no surprise that Woods was such a keen proponent of the latter advantage. He argues that being able to craft a channel from a server base gives the advertising a premium, TV-level of quality.

“This is what TV does well – deliver a central signal, consistently, to a whole variety of distributors,” Woods argued.

Woods also feels that OTT ‘channels’ could harness SSAI to get creative with their inventory. One example he floated was offering brands channel takeovers.

Abhishek Neralla, Director of Media Services at A+E Networks, was keen to agree, arguing that SSAI is instrumental in ensuring consistent ad quality for the consumer. He says that, in a heavily programmatic market, being able to handle varying resolutions of ad creative in advance on the server side allows more time and thought for seamlessly integrating ads into streams.

Neralla said that platforms like A+E Networks struggle juggling ad creative that is all different bitrates, resolutions, and framerates. The latter can be a particular headache, as it can create knock-on disruptions to a TV’s display, with audio and video going out of sync in extreme cases as the device struggles to catch-up and resync with the previous framerate.

Bob Waln, Software Portfolio Manager at MediaKind said there are two main obstacles to publishers not adopting SSAI – legacy mindsets and ad tech budgets.

Continuing his sermon on the benefits of SSAI, Woods argued that he could “look at anyone with a client-side data collection model and raise them a server-side one.”

Keen to assure the panel that SSAI can provide actionable insights, Woods revealed that Amagi was looking to harness the vast amount of viewership data that flows through its extensive network of OTT channels and make it available to advertisers. Once operational, this would allow advertisers to compare their own campaigns with their competitors on a like by like basis.

Adding some much-appreciated nuance to the discussion, Olivier Karra, Cloud Solutions Marketing Director at Broadpeak, argued that choosing between client side or SSAI is not a binary choice for most publishers. Contrary to Woods’ endless praise for SSAI, Karra pointed out that client-side ad insertion provides more consistent user data which can heavily boost the value of inventory.

This is especially true thanks to recent work from the IAB Tech Lab, where several audience metrics and KPIs have been defined properly and standardized. “All these expectations build the value of an impression, and advertisers are increasingly demanding this,” he told us. Karra also noted that these metrics can also be harnessed by independent measurement vendors.

Even Woods was swayed, conceding that most platforms operate both ad insertion systems to some degree. He pointed to Roku, which uses SSAI on its own AVoD service, The Roku Channel, while embedded adverts within the wider Roku UX tended to be delivered client side. “Server side works great for some things, client side works great for others,” he conceded.

Clearly keen to further diffuse any hype surrounding SSAI, Karra noted that the technology can often prove challenging in live streaming, when publishers have only a few seconds notice before an ad break.

While he feels there is already some technology on the market that can cope with these high-pressure situations, Karra says the work is far from over. As streaming platforms keep slimming down their latency times for live events, ad tech vendors will have to continually race to keep up.

But the elephant in the room could not stay quiet much longer. Following some prompting from moderator Jason Thibeault, Executive Director at the Streaming Video Alliance, most agreed that, at present, the ad tech ecosystem is a vast and complex mess.

Neralla feels the industry is still a work in progress, with the ultimate goal of standardized protocols and IDs still very much out of reach. Neralla certainly seemed bewildered by the current state of ad tech – “it is an ecosystem of ecosystems.”

Karra then reeled off a daunting list of obstacles to a smooth marketplace – ad fraud, privacy protection, and a lack of standardized metadata meaning much gets lost between service providers and publishers.

Nonetheless, Karra feels optimistic that ad insertion technologies pose a huge opportunity for advertisers to reach mass audiences with targeted ads. He argues that while there were always monetary objectives to expand advertising inventory, publishers now are motivated to improve their UX by ensuring users get quality ads.

Harking back to the age-old grievance of ad tech players, Neralla argued that one of A+E Network’s biggest pet peeves is the continued lack of uniform ID to track ads as they move across multiple systems in a programmatic pattern.

“We are frequently unable to track what has been bought and sold, meaning that the same ads keep popping up for users,” Neralla told us. Well, it would not be an ad tech panel unless someone brought up the ID issue, but at least there were some optimistic voices, with Karra saying that the technology is moving in the right direction.

Woods took us on whistle-stop tour of the can of worms that Amagi must enter every time it wants to perform SSAI. There are at least eight unique systems and vendors involved, with ad requests running from origin to programming schedules, playout systems, ad routers, and then two ad servers on both the demand and supply sides, before going all the way back through the same chain.

“It’s wild,” Woods exclaimed. “I’m astonished that ads come back in one piece, and that we can then stitch them perfectly.” Taking a cautiously optimistic view, Woods felt it would take the ad tech industry about ten years to shake off its current, highly convoluted state.

Woods noted that these linear style streaming channels can also be much more high pressure than VoD when it comes to ad insertion. “We get pulses of requests – it can be quiet for a while, and then suddenly 1 million ad requests come in. We have to process all of those in under a second,” he explained.