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Watching That's "Let's Talk About..." series, part of our #RecoverStronger programme, delves into the depths of the most interesting, poignant & fundamental concepts in video advertising - demystifying & clarifying for the industry. Check out our #RecoverStronger hub for more guides, tips, tricks and expert advice.

 

AdTech is the promised land of Acronyms: RTB, VAST, IDFA, SSP, DSP, CPM, DMP, CMP, CDP etc and etc and etc.

And, right at its nexus, living at the intersection of ubiquity and obscurity, is VPAID.

VPAID is such a fundamental player in web based video advertising that we wanted to devote this Let's Talk About... post in an attempt to unwrap, untangle and let you make heads or tails of it. Wish us luck.

So to go on this journey we are going to ask:

  1. Why is VPAID even a 'thing'?
  2. Why is it the Godfather of the video advertising internet?
  3. What's the 901 General VPAID Error shake down?
  4. Why OTT and CTV is VPAID's Donnie Brasco moment?
  5. What you can do today to avoid a VPAID shakedown?

 

1. Why is VPAID even a 'thing'?

VPAID is short(ish) for Video Player Ad Interface Definition (you can tell they threw in that last word just to get a nice sounding acronym!) and in the brief history of digital video advertising, there is not a more dramatic, sordid and Netflix documentary-ready story than that of VPAID.

Devised with purity at heart, all it ever wanted to do was save the sanities of creative agency folks.

These creative sparks wanted to build award winning video ad experiences that would just work across the Web.

But after innocent beginnings it wasn't long until VPAID was hijacked and coerced by nefarious, savvy and enterprising entities across the ad supply chain.

In the early days of web video, Adobe Flash and Desktop inventory dominated.

It was a time before mobile devices and web standards for video playback.

A time that if an ad creative wanted to do something funky on-top of just playing back the video ad, it would need to figure out how to control the player that contained it. And with so many flavours of players out there it was impossible to build just one creative that would be compatible with all of them. Even if you could figure out all the different variations possible.

So enter the IAB atop their standard setting white horse. With the collective good will applied, the IAB birthed the VPAID spec.

In a nutshell it is a standard that defines a set of player controls and interface that all supporting video players needed to implement. To an ad creative, all participating video players now looked the same, and one code base could be developed that would just work.

It was the breakthrough creative agencies desired and the age of interactive in-stream ads began.

And then ended quickly as the audience just didn't engage with these types of interruptive experiences.

Furthermore the rise of the mobile had begun and further pressure was put on heavy, resource hungry frameworks and creatives like VPAID-powered interactive video ad experiences.

Some of you might even recall the early days of the iPhone when you couldn't even play a video back in the mobile Safari browser, instead it was loaded in the external device player, stripping it from all wrappers, trackers and helpers.

So fast forward a few years: mobile is now king, Adobe Flash is dead and buried and audiences don't care for interactive video ad experiences.

YouTube video about Adobe Flash being killed off by Apple

This was the end of the line for VPAID, or it would have been if it were not for some very enterprising and savvy individuals.

From the ashes, VPAID was resurrected stronger and more powerful as the platform for two of the most lucrative divisions of modern programmatic video advertising:

  • Real Time Auctions; and
  • Inventory Quality Measurement and Verification

Both of these deserve their own Let's Talk About... posts but for now, we just need to agree that when it comes to the history of digital video advertising these were seismic shifts that unlocked billions of dollars of new value.

VPAID had a new lease on life. It became its Michael Corleone moment.

 

2. Why is VPAID the Godfather of the video advertising internet?

In essence VPAID is just a tool. And it's how it is wielded that matters.

Like a hammers in homes, VPAID has ubiquitous adoption across the web. And like hammers, it can be put to use for many different cases other than its intended purpose of pounding a nail.

As performance, and in turn programmatic, advertising gathered steam a solution was needed to allow for video advertising transactions to happen at scale.

With new ideas like real time bidding and inventory measurement gaining traction, engineers had to find a platform that was distributed enough to handle trillions of avails in a way that brought the context of every single impression into the decisioning process.

VPAID's ability to execute one Javascript code base across the majority of web video players (at this point now also supported on mobiles) was a godsend for verification vendors like MOAT and video SSP platforms like SpotX.

Not only could the VPAID compatible code run seamless across the Web, it could also run outside of the scope of the player.

With the death of Flash, HTML5 became the only way to instantiate a video player in a web browser.

This W3C open standard allowed VPAID script developers to write and execute code that could inspect and interactive with the environment beyond the video player.

All of a sudden Viewability became a thing that caused publishers a lot of pain. These VPAID units were able to wrap the video ad creative and inspect the `quality` of the bought impression BEFORE the ad had started playback. Thereby giving buyers a way out of what they believed to be low performing inventory.

Watching That Inventory Quality Visualisation

At the same time, video header bidding frameworks and inline auction setups were spinning up across the board in an attempt for SSPs to get out of being under the thumb of the ad server.

VPAID provided SSPs with a way out. They could now execute an auction in real time on the characteristics of the opportunity. So they might be loaded into the ad server at $20 CPM but they could check each avail just before fulfilment and ensure they could fill it profitability or hand it back.

From here it was a slippery slope and before long SSPs were able to layer in brand safety and verification vendors all in the name of sifting the wheat from the chaff.

VPAID had completed its coming of age journey of being a junior family member of the digital video ad industry, to a ruling Don.

And the protection rackets it enables are punishing publishers with loss of revenue from arbitrary custom checks and bloated scripts that increase page latency leading to viewer drop off.

The worst of these, by far, is the lack of transparency when things don't work.

The dreaded family enforcer: the 901 General VPAID Error.

 

3. What's the 901 General VPAID Error shake down?

OK it might be a bit unfair equating the use of VPAID by the programmatic ad industry with that of the mafia but in this dog eat dog world you won't find many RevOps teams that would say they don't feel short changed when it comes to the use of VPAID by their supply partners.

Anyone who has anything to do with VPAID will have heard of the 901 General Error.

It's the Achilles heel of the spec.

When VPAID was first defined, it seems it was a happy, go lucky world. All sunshine and rainbows. The original spec was so sure things would always just work that the architects specified only one error type.

The 901 General VPAID Error.

Watching That Troubleshooting that shows VPAID 901 Errors

 

And this blissful optimism has plagued publishers and stymied revops teams ever since.

The 901 General VPAID Error takes everything that goes wrong within a VPAID container and reduces it to a single binary signal - either there was an error or there wasn't.

That's it.

By being so utterly useless at describing why things go wrong, coupled with the exponentially increasing complexity in video ad tech so much opportunity is lost at every moment of every day.

After all, if publishers can understand why the VPAID powered ad creatives are failing they can take positive steps in making the situation much better for all involved.

But that's the point, VPAID was never designed for this real time / just in time multi party transaction model. It was coerced into the situation without any modifications to the specifications made; and this oversight now has a critical choke hold on the continued growth of the video programmatic ecosystem.

For web inventory that is...

 

4. Why OTT and CTV is VPAID's Donnie Brasco moment?

There is no doubt that the use of VPAID has proven pivotal in driving the industry to its current heights.

But it has been a path of diminishing returns and as scale and complexity continue unabated, the time has come for VPAID to start its retirement. After all it's just business, and VPAID thinking is old-fashioned.

There are a few contenders for the crown:

Frameworks like Prebid.js that run unified auctions, thereby providing all the contextual data needed to all bidders at the same time and eliminating the need for individual SSPs to load up their own units each and every time in a waterfall setup;

The IAB Techlab's Open Measurement initiative that provides one set of verification beacons for all measurement partners, again eliminating the need for creatives to be wrapped in VPAID units.

IAB notice about the deprecation of the VPAID spec

But the main muscle is coming from the emergence of scaled, programmatic sources of OTT / CTV inventory.

This pool of inventory comes from devices and platforms that do not support JavaScript and, therefore, VPAID.

As this inventory becomes the mainstay of cross platform campaigns, innovation is underway to provide the same measurement and verification data overlays without the ability to use VPAID.

This is far from easy, and without a cross device standard language like Javascript it will be a long road.

But the audience is flowing this way and the dollars will flow. And where business goes, so goes the Don!

 

5. What you can do today to avoid a VPAID shakedown?

So VPAID is a (slowly) sinking ship. And you don't want to go down with it.

Here is what you should be doing to avoid a VPAID shake down:

Adopt a unified auction / video header bidding setup :

Where possible get off tag based setups asap. These tags are promise based so inherently lead to VPAID units being loaded up every time the tag is called.

In the case where you have two to three tags in a waterfall setup your pages / ad units can be loading up 3 VPAID units for every ad request.

Get Troubleshooting insights into your VPAID Errors:

Deploy a platform like Watching That. It will allow you to go beyond the code and crack through the dreaded 901 General VPAID Error.

Like spotting a blackhole, you need to infer what's going on by looking at the effects around the 901 errors.

Implement the OM SDK

The latest version of the OM SDK supports Javascript / WebView setups. This means it can be used in mobile browsers and apps.

This will remove the need for creatives to be wrapped by a VPAID unit.

Insist on SIMID Support

This is the IAB TechLab's recommended replacement for VPAID. It is specifically designed to solve the problems introduced by the use of VPAID.

The challenge here is that publishers need to insist on the use of SIMID rather than VPAID.

It is compatible on non-web inventory like that from OTT and mobile apps, so adoption for this protocol is growing, but proactive adoption of VAST 4+ and the offering of SIMID by publishers will hasten the transition.

 

This article is part of Watching That's Recover Stronger programme - check out our #RecoverStronger hub for more guides, tips, tricks and expert advice for the video industry. And subscribe below to get new updates. 

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