With The High Cost Of Customization, The Industry Must Learn to Love ‘Vanilla’

mikehaight"Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Mike Haight, an executive at Infinitive.

Given the rapid pace of change in the industry, it’s no wonder the history of digital advertising technology is one of ad hoc solutions, one-off custom tool development and workarounds – the latter including some of the most elaborate spreadsheets the business world has ever known.

The result is that today most publishers have heterogeneous technology environments that handcuff them to a variety of previously customized tools and features.

Much of this customization was driven by the lack of a single piece of technology that did everything publishers needed to sell and serve ads, insert and track orders, capture and manage customer data or produce important cross-system reports. At the time, many customized solutions made sense as standalone solutions to specific problems. For instance, until recently there was no off-the-shelf software available to integrate insertion orders with third-party tracking systems.

A similar problem exists today in linking programmatic sales platforms with traditional order management systems. And while these custom integrations may seem cost-effective in a vacuum, they invariably snowball into an unexpectedly high total cost of ownership due to unexpectedly high maintenance cost or scalability limitations.

Today, as the digital ad industry becomes increasingly reliant on technology, some digital ad groups are practically held hostage by the complexity of their ad tech stacks and the inflexibility of legacy processes. Hence, there is broad consensus about the need to simplify environments, including systems and processes, as a means to improve efficiency, control rising costs and enhance operational effectiveness.

Thinking ‘Out Of The Box’

The best means to simplification is not necessarily less ad tech, but less customization when new or upgraded technology goes in.

There are real advantages to reducing customization in implementations. Standard out-of-the-box implementations have emerged as a clear best practice in the ad tech realm, mirroring the broader technology market. This is partially due to the natural maturation of the industry. Initial software solutions were built for specific use cases, and then sold to the wider market under the premise of being a one-size-fits-all cure to common industry problems.

But it took several years of product enhancement and adoption to refine initial software offerings into today’s tried-and-true versions. Many companies insist on customization because they believe their one-of-a-kind business has unique needs that no single software platform could meet. This may be true of some extremely niche players. More likely it indicates a resistance to update out-of-date operating models or processes. In most cases, ad tech’s increasing maturation and expanding feature sets provide multiple options for addressing the full range of issues digital ad groups face.

Some of the most powerful packages on the market feature leading-edge process models and workflows that may represent big improvements in efficiency, accuracy and productivity. Consider how too many custom reports may actually confuse readers, while the standard automated reports commonly available are useful in focusing stakeholders on a core set of metrics and KPIs. The question is whether the extra work to generate custom reports, which can be considerable, produces sufficiently valuable insights. Because standard reports cover 95% or more of what most managers need, I believe the answer is no.

Standard “vanilla” implementations also offer benefits in testing, maintenance and upgrades. All of these tasks become more difficult, time consuming and expensive when software is configured in ways that deviate from original designs.

Custom integrations are another sticking point. Most ad technology solutions now offer strong, flexible out-of-the-box integrations with order management systems and ad servers. Companies that try to build these integrations themselves or layer custom fields on top of plug-and-play solutions risk forcing bad data into systems at best, or breaking the out-of-the-box interface at worst.

Not every system in the stack needs every data point. Most ad tech groups no longer need extensive customization. Going with standard package features may even shorten the path to performance gains.

Breaking The Bad Habit

Rigorous vendor assessments are a great place to start weaning from the customization habit. Investing time upfront helps confirm and clarify business and technical requirements. Many groups rush through the requirements definition and vendor evaluation processes, but these activities can pay dividends in the form of smoother implementations, faster time to value and reduced costs. Sometimes what seems like the slow way is actually the fast way.

Rebooting the relationship with corporate information technology departments is another useful step. A lot of ad tech is not maintained by IT. But now that the platforms are so robust and critical to the business, ad tech leaders and ad ops teams need a partner who understands best practices in areas ranging from testing and maintenance to performance reporting and data security. Ad tech should no longer be considered outside the realm of IT.

IT leaders should take the time to understand the ad tech space and work to deploy best practices in helping ad tech teams to rationalize every component in the stack, choose the right vendors, plan and execute implementations, integrate data sets and manage the overall environment.

Another advantage of standardized implementations is end-user adoption. In my experience, customizations often give end users an excuse for not using new tools or adopting new process.

Without strong end-user adoption, no technology investment will generate optimal returns.

Thus, it’s best to focus on how – specifically – new tools will improve key metrics and then carefully address how users will handle work in precisely those ways. In some cases, new technology can bear the blame for long overdue changes to outmoded processes, which led to the customized requirements in the first place.

Ad tech leaders may recognize that if they were starting their digital ad businesses from scratch they would immediately adopt industry-standard processes, which are baked into most major ad tech packages available today.

Still it’s important to acknowledge that out-of-the-box won’t give you 100% of every single function or widget that you might want. However, given the advancements in ad tech generally, the capabilities you gain will likely be a huge improvement over the status quo – besides being faster, cheaper and less risky.

Follow Infinitive (@InfinitiveRocks) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

1 Comment

  1. Tim Messier

    In complete agreement. Those of us accountable for justifying these investments need to stop being afraid and exploit the out-of-the-box capabilities, as opposed to kicking the "requirements" down the road and not moving forward.

    Reply

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