Q&A with FreeWheel on Programmatic in Streaming TV

In a relatively short amount of time, the streaming TV market has seen rapid growth, bringing new opportunities in advertising and programmatic technology. FreeWheel, one of the world’s largest video ad servers, has been a major player in the market since its inception. 

Now, as the ecosystem continues to evolve, Freewheel, along with the broader ad tech industry, is at the forefront of improving efficiency and advancing programmatic in streaming—all while delivering an ideal viewer experience for consumers. I spoke with Jon Mansell, VP, head of marketplace demand at FreeWheel, to hear more about the evolution of the TV landscape, scaling programmatic, improving the viewer experience, and what’s next for streaming TV.

Photography, Head, Person

1. Programmatic in streaming TV is taking off. What’s necessary for this scale to continue?

Jon Mansell: To ensure programmatic’s continued growth, we are looking to reduce some of the inefficiencies in the TV ad buying process to help publishers better incorporate programmatic demand into their monetisation strategies. There is an increasingly urgent premium being assigned to sellers who own the direct authentication with the end consumer. These users can command greater bid liquidity in biddable environments, and they are able to offer greater outcome-based attribution to buyers—things like incremental connected TV (CTV) reach to linear exposure, mobile app downloads, or subscriptions.

2. What are you doing at FreeWheel to help spur growth?

JM: For programmatic to continue its meteoric rise in streaming, programmatic buyers need a seat at the table within the unified ad server decision. FreeWheel’s core value is in its ad serving capabilities. We enable buyers and sellers to transact in a unified manner across all deal types: traditional insertion order (IO), programmatic guaranteed, and biddable. We’re working to bring more innovative integrations between DSPs and FreeWheel to assure digital allocations made within the upfront can fulfill via biddable pathways and programmatic streaming can continue to flourish.

3. FreeWheel has been in this industry for a long time. How have you seen the landscape and the needs of your customers evolve, especially around the shift from demo to audience-based transactions? What are some of the recent shifts that have implications on the future of scale?

JM: The growth of addressability and how to activate at scale is one of the biggest changes we’ve seen.

Most of the activity we see still lives in traditional IO due to the linear upfront approach relying on fixed rates and volumes, as well as the relative (to biddable) predictable delivery therewithin. However, as viewership continues to fragment across screens and increasingly shift toward streaming, it’s imperative for media buyers to be able to manage reach and frequency across their total TV audience.

While individual campaigns on single platforms are being managed well, this traditional approach won’t stand the test of time. Buyers need a global view of campaign reach and performance. To accomplish this holistic approach, buyers will need to get more comfortable with variable rate buys and justifying this variability with outcome-based attribution rather than panel-based cost savings. It will take time, but we are already seeing the barriers wane.

4. Collaboration across the industry is important for continued innovation, improved efficiency, and scaling programmatic in streaming. Tell us more about why you chose to partner with Index and help media owners streamline access to demand.

JM: When we break down the traditional silos of technology, demand sources, and partnerships, we establish a more open, interoperable ecosystem. By committing to innovation and interoperability across the industry, we ensure the converged TV space becomes even more seamless, efficient, and ultimately, more effective for all sides of the advertising trade.

We don’t just say it, we actually do it. Over the years, FreeWheel has partnered with a myriad of measurement partners to ensure cross-currency transactions, integrated with an industry-leading number of DSPs to best serve the widest spectrum of marketers, and we’ve put technology in place for publishers to directly trade inventory with each other by leveraging data and automation.

As of late, we have pushed into a new frontier with Index by enabling a direct integration. Index is a part of our publishers’ broader demand strategy and strives to create unique value through its exchange.

As the unified decision engine, FreeWheel makes the one, unified, and agnostic decision to holistically manage monetisation. Wherever unique value can be created between buyers and sellers, FreeWheel will work to integrate that pathway into our ecosystem.

5. Index CEO Andrew Casale will be joining you on the FreeWheel Beach at Cannes Lions for a panel discussion about the new TV ecosystem. As streaming TV and the relationships between industry players grow more complex, what impact does this have on the viewer experience?

JM: As we’ll discuss during the panel, “Evolving Partnerships in the New TV Ecosystem,” the ability for media companies to provide a quality, uniform ad experience across an increased variety of different platforms has grown much more difficult. Yet, protecting the relationship with viewers is more important than ever.

Consumers are now fully armed with the ability to watch content exactly when, where, and how they prefer—and that includes taking the ad experience under consideration.

Serving ads outside of the traditional linear ad ecosystem, whether on free ad-supported streaming TV (FAST), advertising-based video on demand (AVOD), or other streaming platforms, is complex. The same viewer watching the same content can be served an ad through potentially dozens of different supply paths and additive tech hops that don’t add value.

This can sometimes result in issues that impact the user experience such as slate, latency, and ad repetition. Think about it—how many times have you rolled your eyes after seeing a blank screen, or changed the channel after watching an irrelevant or repetitive ad?

The good news is that FreeWheel and industry partners such as Index are already hard at work to improve the viewer experience. Solving these challenges is one of the main themes of our programming at Cannes to bring greater awareness and initiate change.

6. Improving the ad and viewer experience is certainly paramount to the future of streaming TV. As you work to initiate change and improve the experience, how do you view ad tech’s role in solving some of today’s challenges?

JM: It’s the job of the ad tech industry to bring education and advocacy to the challenge of improving the ad and viewer experience. So how do we go about this? It all comes down to understanding the pain points, and then trying to solve for them with the right technology solutions, the best business partnerships, and the underlying research to understand what the new metrics are in this evolving landscape that help drive performance.

It is imperative to provide more interoperability, and so, as an example, at FreeWheel we are working to integrate SSPs, like Index, directly into our platform to make sure that a publisher’s demand diversity does not impact the end consumer with added latency or a blank slate.

Further to that point, programmatic wasn’t built to communicate an ad pod, only an ad slot—a single ad impression rather than an ad break. Seeing as the true opportunity in streaming is about professionally produced commercial break inventory, the programmatic ecosystem must advance to incorporate this reality into its protocol—standards have been written on this subject, but adoption will rely on the media providers’ ability to maintain control over their ad experience.

It is also key to remember that at the end of the day, the goal of advertising is still the same. It’s about creating a strong connection with the consumer—the right message, to the right person, at the right time, in the right environment—that will deliver the best outcome.

7. What’s next for streaming TV? What can we expect through the end of the year?

JM: When looking to what is next for streaming TV, FAST is a sleeping giant. FreeWheel’s latest Video Marketplace Report revealed that FAST channels are now accounting for an impressive 50% of total streaming viewership and 29% of total ad views, yet the ad industry is just beginning to realise this massive opportunity. But we need to be ready when it wakes up, as if we don’t get the user experience right, we risk losing out.

In addition, identity management will continue to build momentum and disparate technologies will accelerate, especially in programmatic. There will be a continued urgency to better deliver on committed budgets through biddable pathways—tools that help track and manage pacing across platforms will begin to emerge.

Want to learn more about streaming TV? Tune in to our new Index Explains video series, where we’re breaking down the complexities of streaming TV advertising to help you unlock its full potential.

Cory Greenberg

Cory Greenberg

Senior director of sales

Senior director of sales Cory Greenberg, senior director of sales at Index Exchange, specialises in streaming TV partnerships, business development, and supply integrations. With over 15 years of experience in advertising technology, he brings a wealth of expertise to drive successful outcomes for publishers. When not at work, Cory enjoys playing golf, hockey, and spending quality family time.

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