Managing Ad Shifts When Disaster Strikes

Many businesses stared down a massive wall of uncertainty when the realities of COVID-19 started to hit. This resulted in an almost unprecedented exodus from TV advertising as video and content providers grappled with the dichotomy of canceled spots in the face of surging viewership. While their television ad systems could accommodate normal market fluctuations on an as-needed basis, they were not designed to handle enormous volumes that saw thousands of cancellations per day. It was an unanticipated scenario and one made all the more burdensome by manual processes required to make changes and salvage certain bookings.

Michelle Stone

Michelle Stone

While the greatest surge in rebookings and cancellations is past us, there remains a continued need for increased agility as conditions change. The lessons learned and counterstrategies developed in the past several months are being continually fine-tuned as content distributors and their partners position to be better prepared for challenges ahead — including a possible resurgence of the disease this fall and the anticipated fits and starts of a return to normalcy over the next two years.


Picture a restaurant chain that had placed spots across multiple local, regional and national outlets months in advance of March of this year. When dining rooms were ordered to be closed, canceling or redirecting a campaign in such a fragmented environment proved problematic. Cancellations of individual orders within ad management systems were required to ensure removal of all spots. Some businesses wanted to change their messaging on the fly to reassure customers that steps were being taken to keep them safe.

Even large brands and video providers, both with great resources, struggled to keep up.So consider the challenges that less-resourced players faced and the en masse cancellations start to make sense. With the unprecedented wave of cancellations taxing both ad-management systems and personnel, sales portals and traffic management systems crashed or timed out, leading to an increase in support calls. One major operator switched to staggered shifts and scheduled more than 100 hours of additional human effort to process the flood of requests.

Through it all, Imagine Communications worked closely with its customers to brainstorm quick fixes, workarounds and paths forward to get them into the clear. Next time, the goal is to keep clients ahead of the game. Based on our experience, we believe the following principles are essential for improved operational readiness and responses for future emergencies:

• Speed is essential: When events overwhelm systems, it’s vital to get ahead of the problem as soon as possible. By quickly convening the necessary resources, we were able to work with customers to isolate specific transaction types where unprecedented volume was causing critical delays. This allowed us to deliver a new function designed specifically to optimize key transactions, saving hours of time and virtually eliminating workflow bottlenecks.

• Collaboration is key: The more players in the mix, the greater the temptation to point fingers. What’s more productive is to recognize that unexpected emergencies require communication, listening and problem-solving from all stakeholders. Convening and participating in task forces that worked closely with our customers and their third-party partners (even competitors sometimes) helped us quickly communicate and strategize fast fixes. Bringing all resources to the table at the same time ensured clearer communication and strategies that could be delivered on by all necessary parties, mitigating the chance that addressing new problems would result in other unintended issues.

• Supportive services: While many spot pulls were due to unexpected revenue loss, some were simply about not wanting to deliver the wrong brand message for the time. Especially on a local level, video providers can preserve revenues by offering free or discounted production services to help change ads to incorporate more relevant messages.

• Solutions, not Band-Aids: While we've seen customers devote substantial human effort to fulfilling advertising cancellations and changes, including working with advertisers to have change orders submitted during the overnight hours, the long-term need was for a permanent fix. In this case, we determined that creating, testing and delivering a brand new function specifically optimized to process “cancel before start” requests (which generated 90% of the volume increase impacting performance of the legacy service) allowed for just these specific requests to be routed to the new function, completely isolating risks and causing no impact on legacy code or other vendors. The major takeaway is to always work to address what is causing the problem, not simply deal with the fallout.

• Stay ahead of trouble: An important decision at the start of the pandemic was to call every customer for permission to conduct practice runs on remote connections to their systems to identify possible trouble scenarios. When trouble is on the horizon, huddling with customers to address concerns, anticipated challenges and strategies for workarounds is a critical step to getting everyone on the same page quickly and figuring out what may go wrong before it actually does.

• Automated optimization goes a long way: More video distributors are experimenting with automated optimization of inventory. When a change or cancellation happens, inventory optimizers automatically shift spots around to accommodate the change and ensure the right audiences are being delivered. It is nearly impossible for this to be done manually as changes occur faster than humans can keep up. In this respect, automated optimization can be the difference between revenue that is saved and that which simply evaporates.

Plotting for Preparedness

In the months ahead, nothing will be as predictable as unpredictability. As advertisers experience sudden changes in needs, service providers and vendors alike will benefit from the ability to quickly implement the lessons learned from the pandemic, as well as the implementation of automation solutions that dramatically improve rescheduling or cancellation of spots. By taking these steps, the industry can quickly address shifts in the landscape to meet advertising partners’ needs and drive business results.

One final thought: Throughout the current crisis, the public increasingly has turned to television for news, information and entertainment, and the industry has risen to the challenge. Broadcasters, service providers and workforces have stepped up by doing whatever has been necessary to keep the world on-air — and connected. Amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, the media’s uninterrupted presence has been a constant that deserves admiration and thanks from all of us. 

Michelle Stone is senior manager, ad tech client success management for Imagine Communications.