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CTV and SSAI: Ready for Primetime

It’s been said that all revolutions start with language. If you’re paying any attention at all, you’ve been hearing a lot of language about Connected TV – CTV – over the last several months. The benefits are, in a word, profound. To put it simply, CTV combines the scale and storytelling capability of TV marketing with the precise targeting and optimization made possible by digital advertising.

Ben Antier, chief product officer & co-founder, Publica

Ben Antier is chief product officer & co-founder, Publica (Image credit: Publica)

Underpinning CTV’s capabilities is a technology called Server-Side Ad Insertion (SSAI). SSAI involves merging ads directly into the data stream of the video content being streamed, so that a user has a seamless and entirely integrated ad experience. The process works behind the scenes, entirely server-to-server: SSAI servers are pinged by large content providers and pass any relevant app or browser data along to help identify which party an ad is being requested by. The SSAI returns the best ad match based on multiple factors – anything known about the person making the request, the real-time market value of the impression, etc. – and the selected brand communication is “stitched” directly into the content stream. This obviates the need for any client-side code, which in turn creates major efficiencies and allows for a seamless ad experience that has long been possible in other media, but has not hitherto been possible in television.

When done correctly, the benefits of SSAI are enormous: improving ad experience for the end user, giving more control to the publisher and reducing errors, and enabling person-level targeting and measurement for the advertiser. And, as the ad content comes in the same stream as the video content itself, the process also dramatically reduces complications arising from ad blockers.

CTV was already the most exciting thing happening in marketing by the end of 2019, and the habits of the viewing public during quarantine have only fueled its growth. According to Nielsen, streaming accounted for almost a quarter of total U.S. TV time during the week of March 16. U.S. consumers spent 156.1 billion minutes streaming content that week, a 36 percent increase over the week of February 24, and more than double the amount of time spent streaming content the same week in March 2019.

"CTV and SSAI aren’t the future, they are the present. There is no question that now is the time to leverage the capabilities they provide, but it is also important to make sure your partners are delivering what you expect..."

Publica's Ben Antier

Challenges – and Solutions

As you’d expect, the rapid growth and adoption of SSAI technologies has created some challenges, which the industry has been quick to notice. One of the initial issues comes from the fact that SSAI is not itself a new technology - it has been used historically by large content providers requesting ads for broadcast television audiences. But whereas in the past, for any given channel, an SSAI was processing perhaps a hundred distinct marketing communications during primetime, now that number can be ten-thousand, or more, thanks to programmatic advertising.

This upsurge in requests has in some cases led to unnecessary and avoidable limitations on targeting and optimization capabilities, as existing SSAI servers scramble to optimize for present demands. It is not that modern servers aren’t up to the job; rather, it is simply that data being collected is not necessarily enough for today’s expectations, and the ad requests themselves need to be updated. SSAI has also created some new and lucrative opportunities for fraudsters.

The good news is that all of these problems have straightforward solutions.

To start, to perform true person-level targeting and optimization, an SSAI client needs to collect and propagate any information that will be needed to deliver and record the ad experience; the first request will gather the only data that can be carried to all the downstream ad servers. Put another way, the initial ad request must contain any data needed to show the appropriate ad, as no client side code will augment it. The correct configuration isn’t difficult, but it hasn’t historically been necessary for all SSAI services, either.

Fraud can be defended against almost as easily. With a secure stream request from a whitelisted server (with the appropriate key in the header) the opportunity for fraud simply doesn’t exist. Using the X-Device-* header (introduced in the Vast 4 Spec) to pass a secret header/key combination seems to be the most straight forward way of doing this. What becomes critical is the ability to verify if a request coming from the server side has been approved, contains the appropriate keys, and is coming from an approved server. This fix mainly requires diligence and scrutiny.

Demand Perfection

These issues will sort themselves out over time, but the process can and should be sped up. Advertisers should push SSAI-server providers to optimize their ability to ensure that ad requests contain the proper metadata. They should also demand transparency when it comes to a provider’s security measures.

Measurement companies can also do much to facilitate this process by integrating directly with SSAI providers. They can tell where an ad is being served and on what device, and they do this well to inform audience insights. They should also use these capabilities to inform brand-safety.

CTV and SSAI aren’t the future, they are the present. There is no question that now is the time to leverage the capabilities they provide, but it is also important to make sure your partners are delivering what you expect: content streams that allow for data-rich, well-crafted ad protocols that match your expectations in other digital media, as well as impression measurement that is accurate and respectful of your media spend.

Guest blog author Ben Antier is chief product officer & co-founder of Publica. Based in Silicon Valley, Publica’s mission is to help CTV Publishers & TV Streaming Services power the next generation of ad experiences on the big screen.