Advertising Guest Columns
6 mins read

How digital publisher Assembly reimagined the vendor evaluation process, by thinking like a tech company

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TL;DR: When choosing an ad quality partner Andrew Fowler’s team at Assembly decided to approach this common digital publisher challenge in a very different way – through the lens of technology and data. In an analytical test of three ad quality companies, one company came out on top. 

At first glance, Assembly appears to be a standard digital publisher. In reality, Assembly is an award-winning tech company masquerading as a digital publisher. 

Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Assembly’s team of 30 people have created six owned and operated digital publications. Topics include health, entertainment, home and garden, and others. 

With a large number of staff being technical, Assembly has created its own publishing, programmatic advertising, and analytics platforms in-house. Assembly uses these in-house platforms to inform business decisions and continuously drive growth.

Inside its doors, you’ll find an atypically large software development team. And, sitting alongside the Director of Technology is Andrew Fowler, the Director of Ad Operations. Unlike others at different publishers in similar roles, Andrew has a deep engineering background, with roots in software development and computer science.

While Assembly asserts a more software development-forward makeup than the traditional digital publisher, Fowler and his team still have to answer a question all digital publishers face: How do you evaluate and pick the right vendor?

Fowler says his team takes a different approach in response to this age-old question – the wrong answers to which can be incredibly costly.

We’ve gone about building our publishing business from a tech company perspective.

Andrew Fowler, Director of Ad Operations, Assembly

Navigating Ad Quality in 2022: Age of The Audience

Assembly has built a proprietary internal analytics platform named Statera, and they use it to inform every single one of their business decisions, specifically how they select their vendors – including their ad quality partner.

Their creation was so ground-breaking, they received the 2019 Digiday Award for Best Use of Audience Insights for Statera. But what does it look like in practice?

Layered on top of this platform is Assembly’s own multi-variant testing software suite, which empowers them to evaluate the performance of different vendors. The measurements for success in each case depend on what type of vendor they’re considering.

For example, “if we’re trying to add a new advertiser into our programmatic advertising stack … web core vitals (LCP, FID, CLS)” are huge for us,” Andrew notes.

Even when you have great partners on your side, the end of a contract presented the opportunity to explore other vendors. This was precisely what happened when Assembly saw the end of GeoEdge’s contract on the horizon.

Statera provided Assembly the perfect opportunity to determine the strongest ad security and quality vendor in the market.  “We haven’t always had Stratera,” Andrew says. Over time – and with rigorous testing – it had become more polished. “We were at the point where we could (use it to) properly evaluate our ad quality vendors.” So, with GeoEdge, “we wanted to give that a shot.”

Fowler and his team narrowed down the list of potential vendor candidates to three based on the features they were looking for – specifically, creative review, blocking controls, landing page scanning, and IAB category-based blocking. From there, it was time to put what they had built to the test.

They ran a multivariate test with 3 different ad quality vendors

Ad quality refers to bad ads, which is broken down into three categories: malicious (malware, redirects, ransomware) low-quality (offensive, explicit, brand-unsuitable), poor user experience (pop-ups, autoplay sound).

Ad quality vendors serve both digital publishers and ad platforms/exchanges to monitor ad inventory in real-time. They detect and block malicious, unwanted, low-quality ads before the ads are served to end-users.

In this test of three ad quality companies, the Assembly team served one-third of their United States mobile traffic to each of their potential vendors.

“And then we had a few metrics that we were measuring them on,” Andrew notes. “We can see how each vendor interacts and impacts core web vitals, how they impact ad load speed and in turn ad viewability, and we measure them all against each other.”

Not every metric was as easy to measure, however. For example, which of the three vendor candidates was the best at blocking ads?

“That’s a tough one,” Andrew admits. “One (reason) is because the settings for all the ad quality vendors are a little bit different in their dashboards. In order to have a fair test, we tried to keep all the settings the same across all three, but I must admit that’s not perfect. We can’t have it exactly the same, but I think we got pretty close.”

In the case of this specific ad quality vendor test, one came out on top – GeoEdge, Assembly’s original ad quality vendor. Final test results showed that GeoEdge had 8% lower impact on ad load speed.

Data is great, but what about the relationship side of vendor partnerships?

Even Andrew is the first to admit that when you have conversations dealing with data and software development, it can all sound very cold and calculating. In reality – and particularly when you’re dealing with mission-critical relationships like the ones publishers have with their vendors – that couldn’t be further than the truth.

In his words, “It’s not like we’re a group of computers at Assembly working with a group of computers. No, we’re people working with other people. And that certainly plays into the decision.”

So, when Assembly let GeoEdge know they would use this contractual milestone to evaluate other options, they were happy to find the GeoEdge team ready to begin an open and honest dialogue about the process.

“It’s been a great experience from a human perspective as well,” Andrew says. “Not just a cold, calculating computer perspective.”

What publishers with fewer resources can learn from Assembly

What Andrew Fowler and his team have been able to accomplish by applying a modern-day tech company mindset to an everyday publisher problem is unique. 

But what if you’re a publisher that doesn’t have the same density of internal software development resources? What are new ways to approach vendor assessments and still make good decisions, even if you don’t have a team of developers and engineers behind you? 

In Andrew’s view, how successful you are in applying the knowledge you gather through communities or leveraging any new systems you build for vendor evaluations will hinge on your ability first to define what is important to you.

Vendors quickly differentiate themselves in the marketplace with exciting new features and benefits. This makes it all too easy to succumb to “shiny penny syndrome,” where we forget what our own requirements and actual needs are. 

Andrew knows first-hand how easy it is for publishers to get stuck in a trap of constantly cycling through vendors every time a contract expires.

“Maybe it’s because of pricing or a better sales pitch,” he shares. But somehow, too many of us end up on this treadmill, “going around and around and around, trying out different vendors and not knowing if they’re improving or degrading.”

The digital media industry is marking a new chapter for ad quality in the new year. There’s a unique opportunity at hand to secure your audience’s trust in your brand. With the right ad quality vendor, publishers can safeguard programmatic as a strategic revenue channel and monetize with both confidence and integrity. High-quality advertising encourages audience engagement with your brand, while low-quality ads only serve to increase bounce rates and audience churn.

Following Assembly’s lead, the right vendor offers more than just robust technology –  quality vendors offer true partnership enabling you to focus on your business goals.

The recording of this discussion between Andrew Fowler, Director Of Advertising Operations from Assembly and Melissa Chapman is available on Beeler.Tech.

Beeler.Tech was founded by Rob Beeler and focuses on connecting people, creating conversations, and helping bring efficiency to digital media and ad tech. Beeler.Tech is the platform to facilitate connections and develop content and events based on topics not properly served through traditional channels.