Ari Paparo (@aripap): March 2011 Archives

It’s been over a year since the VAST 2.0 specification was released by the Digital Video Committee of the IAB, and the results have been great, exciting, sometimes confusing, and sometimes hard to see by the naked eye. Let me explain what’s going on with VAST and VPAID and how the Committee is working to accelerate the impact of these standards on the online video business.

Photo courtesy glendalesoccer.com

Let me start with some history. Back in the dark ages of online video (roughly 2004-2008) every publisher and ad network wrote their own XML for communicating from their ad server to their video player. This XML would be interpreted in the player using custom code and the ads would be played, the impressions recorded (hopefully in an IAB-compliant manner), and everyone would be happy. But everyone wasn’t happy. The overhead required to write all the custom code made developers and vendors sad. And the lack of interoperability between the various XML formats made people sadder. In particular, agencies and ad networks had a very difficult time deploying a tag across publishers in the way they were used to doing for banner campaigns—they were the saddest of them all.

VAST and VPAID were intended to solve all these problems. By standardizing the XML specification, vendors would only have to write code once and interoperability would be within our grasp. People called us mad. “You’re playing God!” they said. “No committee of the IAB has ever touched XML and lived to tell about it”. Well, if it would take God to standardize video, then we were ready to strap on a long grey beard and start throwing lightning bolts.

So what happened? The standards were surprisingly widely adopted. According to an IAB survey of its membership, 67% of publishers and 92% of technology vendors were VAST compliant as of Fall, 2010. It recently made news when Australian media agency Ikon Communications threw down the gauntlet and told publishers to allow VAST or be excluded from their media plans. Yet, there’s still a lot of conversation about how the standards haven’t hit the mainstream and how buyers are still struggling to execute online buys across publishers.

The reality is that VAST and VPAID are not ad format standards, like those the IAB spearheaded over the past decade and which are fairly easily understood and adopted by the ecosystem. VAST and VPAID are protocols for executing video campaigns, and they allow publishers to innovate and evolve on top of a common framework. So while VAST is everywhere, it is, paradoxically, rarely seen. When Google recently announced that pre-roll ads on YouTube videos will be available for purchase on its ad exchange, they didn’t mention VAST at all, yet only VAST-compliant creatives will be allowed. When publishers implement new formats or players they are overwhelmingly using VAST as the backbone of those efforts.

The Digital Video Committee is now taking another look at VAST and VPAID and, like Rocky Balboa about to get back in the ring, we are chasing a chicken around a yard. No. Actually, we’re taking feedback from the folks in the trenches to figure out how to make implementation easier, and, more important, to standardize implementation. Wait, what? You’re standardizing the standard? Re-read the last paragraph please, we’ll wait. OK, VAST and VPAID are protocols, not standards, and as such there have been varying ways of utilizing them in production environments. While this flexibility is great and allows for wide adoption, it stands in the way of some of the original intent of their development since, for example, there might be three different ways to implement a simple pre-roll.

The Committee is looking at ways to accelerate adoption and standardization through a number of avenues including

  • Changes to the standards as necessary
  • Improvements to the documentation
  • More reference documents showing “standard” implementations
  • More tools for members to help with testing, troubleshooting, etc.
  • Better understanding and documentation of how VAST and VPAID interact.

We are just getting started so there’s plenty of time to give feedback. As always, any updates will be thoroughly vetted by the committee and by the IAB membership at large, prior to publication. We look forward to your engaged involvement.

Ari Paparo is the Senior VP of Product Management at AppNexus and a member of the IAB Digital Video Committee. You can follow him on Twitter.