The Ad Portal Era
The idea of the ad portal—a service allowing advertisers and agencies to submit ads to publishers remotely through a system that automatically checks for errors and omissions—has been around for a few years, but has taken on new importance with the spread of browser-based portal options (and the need to automate as many workflow processes as possible to increase efficiency). A process that until recently required downloading often complex software can now be accessed anywhere, by anyone, utilizing easy-to-use tools. Without fanfare, the era of the ad portal has fully arrived.
For publishers, the advantages of using ad portals are obvious. "It's really streamlined things," says Penny Sullivan, senior director of premedia services at Meredith. "By the time the ads come to us, they are good to go. In the past, files would come in, you'd open the packet and have to send it to a technical person to run it through preflighting. If they found anything wrong, they'd send it back to the person who opened it, and they would have to get on the phone [with the agency]."
All of that back and forth—with the potential for further errors and miscommunication—is now a thing of the past. "You don't need a whole staff of people for file checking," Sullivan notes. "Most of those people have been redeployed to other things."
The process works by building in tools for automated preflighting, which provides quick and efficient flagging of problems early in the submission process. "The advertiser receives an interactive preflight report, which states if anything did not meet specs and includes information on how to fix the problem," says Gary Dolgins, director of sales and marketing at Blanchard Systems Inc., owner of the SendMyAd portal used by Meredith.
Once the ad is approved by the advertiser, it's ready to be inspected by the publisher or dropped automatically into production.
Dolgins says the process is as easy and cost effective for smaller publishers as for larger ones, as it allows publishers of any size to take people off rote production tasks, streamline departments and bring previously outsourced steps in house.
"There's a lot in there allowing a publisher to work with his advertisers," notes Ed Hensen, digital manufacturing group manager for Publishers Press, which offers the SendMyAd portal to a number of clients as part of its suite of services. "You get documentation both parties can see and agree on. I like the idea of getting a preflight report. We also have the [Dalim] TWiST system for manufacturing, so the file is being interpreted and preflighted with the same system we have on the floor. It's very compatible."
The efficiencies created by ad portals have revolutionized workflows for both publisher and advertisers, according to Cathy Merolle, Hearst's director of production operations.
At Hearst, prepress vendors used to submit ads in the evening, a process that would entail overnighting CDs to arrive the next day. By the time the ad was actually fixed in consultation with the agency (who would themselves be in consultation with the customer), the process was usually well into its third day.
Now, ads are submitted and go through a fast preflighting process, with alerts sent right away and (usually) fixed right away. "So within an hour or so, in the middle of the night, everything's fine," Merolle says. "None of this other stuff is going on that takes days and days and days."
The process pushes responsibility for ad quality and completeness back upstream to the vendor or agency. The benefits: workflow efficiency and predictability. "The reaction from advertisers has been very positive," Merolle says." I think they would rather do that than burn CDs."
A side benefit cited by Merolle is built-in protection for publishers when ads get through that are not to clients' liking. Hearst's portal states in plain language that advertisers should send a SWOP [Specifications for Web Offset Printing] compliant proof, and prompts them to sign a waiver if they choose not to. "[If] the reproduction does not come out to what they were expecting … we point out that they clicked on this or that [disclaimer] and said they agree, they understand [what the standards need to be].'"
Adopting Ad Portals
The increasing benefits of ad portals have been borne out by the technology's rapid adoption by the industry. In 2004, Time Inc. became the first major publisher to offer advertisers the ability to submit ads via the Internet through its Direct2Time service, according to Guy Gleysteen, senior vice president of production at Time Inc.
"Direct2Time … allows advertisers to check the quality of their files before they submit them to a magazine," he says. "At launch, that innovation alone immediately helped eliminate the many hours spent checking and resubmitting ad material that was not prepared correctly."
Gleysteen says the system was "an instant hit with advertisers."
"It's worth pointing out that 100 percent of our ads are received this way—and have been for years—eliminating the need for hard copy proofs, saving time, money (on overnight shipping and couriers), and allowing more extension flexibility," Gleysteen notes.
Meredith's original application-based portal had more than 50-percent compliance, but adoption rates were hindered by learning curve and permissions issues. With a browser-based system, adoption and use of the portal has jumped to near 100 percent, Sullivan says.
A key part of the implementation process was educating vendors about the new system using easy-to-understand tutorials without forcing the system on people.
"I've been involved in a lot of [implementation] projects, and this would not be one that I would call really difficult," Sullivan says. "I think that's because a lot of coordination went into it. We did a lot of communication. We did webinars to train the advertisers on what we were doing … we talked to our salespeople and agencies. We took a pretty holistic approach before we rolled out, and as a result, there were very few surprises. The biggest [question] was how quickly the users would adapt to it."
Salespeople were trained in the process and ready to support advertisers, but not involved in actively pitching the portals. "I never got one call from them with a complaint," Sullivan notes.
Merolle says installation is "kind of a no-brainer," and the browser-based portals tend to be easy to learn. "I always give the portal the idiot test: myself," she jokes. "I'm not a digital workflow expert, I'm a production person. That's why I'm a good barometer, and believe me, it's simple."
Because all browser-based portals tend to have similar advantages in terms of workflow and efficiency, publishers should choose a vendor based on their specific short and long-term goals, such as the need to streamline known stumbling blocks.
"Most publishers tell us the thing that's usually wrong with an ad when they receive it is it's the wrong size," Dolgins says. "With a trim tool right in the application, they can position the ad and trim away all the unneeded information."
For Hearst, a desire for quick adoption led to a request for ad portal vendor (and premedia company) HudsonYards to allow advertisers to upload with a minimum of steps.
"[Cropping tools] are a good idea, and maybe eventually we'll put in a cropping tool, but our major focus at the beginning was to get full compliance," Merolle says. "We didn't want people to get hung up on all these … clicks before you're uploading."
All agree a vendor should be open to feedback and ongoing conversation about how to optimize their systems for individual clients. "The biggest thing we were looking for in a vendor was someone that would be a good long-term partner," Sullivan says.
In consultation with Hearst, HudsonYards added enhancements every few months after the portal's launch in February 2008. "My people here who do the ad trafficking would hear suggestions from users, so we would put it in there," Merolle says. By the end of 2008, she says, Hearst had achieved its goal of near-universal compliance.
New Roles for Portals
Coming out of such conversations have been many ideas for expanding portal technology to encompass other aspects of magazine production. SendMyAd, for instance, has added an ad-creation tool allowing advertisers to download templates to create pre-defined "marketplace" style ads.
The browser-based solution may also prove ideal as a means to further streamline production processes. An important component of future browsers, Merolle says, will be systems integration. She cites QuadSystems, whose AdShuttle portal is integrated with the company's magazine production software (Impoze), allowing publishers to skip the step of dropping images into the software. According to Stuart Mason, sales and business development manager at QuadSystems, the company is sunsetting Impoze and replacing it with Publishers Studio, which will further streamline the process by passing metadata submitted with the ad right into the production software.
A major step forward for portals could come through industry standardization. Merolle sits on an international committee for PDF workflows, the Ghent PDF Workgroup, which seeks to develop a standard ad ticket. "We're thinking maybe there could be a universal portal that could be like a file server, admit[ting] to everybody else's portal," she says.
The portals themselves can help the standardization push—as with Hearst's system—encouraging agencies to send SWOP-compliant proofs, or by providing incentive to adopt a standard digital insertion order, an initiative Merolle and others are working on through information technology nonprofit IDEAlliance.
For Publishers Press, the most important technological advancements relate to customer satisfaction.
"The technology is more sound, and with browser-based systems, you can be sitting in an airport and deal with your ads," Hensen says. "It just lets the whole process be more efficient and takes a lot of work off our customers who are publishers. Anything we can do to help them get more advertising in their books is good for all of us."