Get With the Program: Is Programmatic the Future of In-Flight Ads?


All illustrations by Angelica Geisse

Programmatic advertising is rampant in the digital touchpoints we engage with on a daily basis – there’s no reason why it wouldn’t thrive in flight.

According to an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) report, digital advertising revenue in the US hit a record $57.9 billion during the first six months of last year. But it appears to have reached a peak. In the press release accompanying the report, Sue Hogan, IAB’s senior vice-president of Research and Analytics, stated the pace of growth is slowing. “As smartphone ownership nears saturation and social media matures, the industry is focused on new channels, such as connected TV, augmented reality and the vast potential of 5G.” 

In the Internet age, where advertising is abundant and humans can no longer keep track of the sheer amount of ad inventory across numerous platforms and formats, programmatic advertising has emerged to automate the buying and selling of ad space. (Zenith, a Publicis Media-owned agency, forecasts that 69 percent of ads will be traded programmatically this year, with ad spend exceeding $100 billion globally.) Hogan doesn’t mention in-flight entertainment (IFE) as a new channel for advertising, but those working in it say it’s a lesser-known market that holds a lot of potential. Airline IFE portals increasingly resemble the websites and digital platforms we’re familiar with on the ground, and with a captive audience of millions, it should make for an easy sell
to advertisers. 

London-based company Inadvia is the first to create a programmatic-advertising trading platform for the transit sector. Its director and co-founder, Tim Letheren, who is also a member of APEX’s Ad Delivery Working Group (ADWG), explains: “In the in-flight world, the direct sales model has worked well for many years, but with the growth of bring-your-own-device IFE and connectivity, there’s a lot more premium advertising inventory available.” 

“Airlines are not in the impressions business … Airlines are in the people business.” – Andy Rosen, consultant

Letheren says that in-flight advertising has typically been part of buyers’ out-of-home budgets, which covers digital billboards, for example, because the metrics provided aren’t as concrete as clicks on a website. But because programmatic advertising in flight would enable ads to be targeted based on an array of criteria, the in-flight ad space is becoming a more attractive spend for digital and TV buyers at advertising agencies.

Dan Larden, managing partner, Product and Partnerships, at digital agency Infectious Media, adds, “Programmatic is about advertising at the right time, right place and with the right message.” In 2017, his company worked with now-defunct Thomas Cook Airlines to sell seats on certain flights that needed filling by advertising a specific destination to an airport catchment area with flights to that location. Larden continues, “It’s also about having a data-led approach to measurement so brands can feel comfortable ensuring their money was well spent. There is no arguing that it’s the right time and place for some advertisers, particularly in the travel vertical. But it’s the more granular data used to measure the effectiveness of the channel that will ensure brands come back for more – and perhaps attract non-travel brands to the medium.”

The capability to accommodate programmatic advertising could be a boon for airlines, even more so when one considers Letheren’s view that premium video advertising is a supply-constrained market with limited quality ad spots available. Airlines could offer premium ad space through their IFE and would be able to ensure a “brand-safe” environment. This has proven to be something that numerous household names, including Nestlé, Disney and Audi, are mindful of, having pulled their ads from YouTube last year over concerns they were appearing alongside sensitive content. 

But Ciaran O’Kane, CEO of ExchangeWire, an ad-tech-focused online publication, suggests that just because the capability is there doesn’t mean we should advertise to passengers without limitation. “Simple things like frequency capping, which determines how many ads a user sees per journey, would be useful. Bombarding a passenger with ads is not a good user experience,” he says. 

Source: Inadvia

Andy Rosen, a consultant, and chair of the ADWG, says that targeting ads so that they merge seamlessly with the entertainment experience and perhaps even enhance it is the ultimate goal when it comes to introducing programmatic ads on board. “Airlines are not in the impressions business, where bulk is the only thing that matters. Airlines are in the people business,” he explains. This focus on creating a special relationship between the airline and the passenger is why Rosen believes it’s important for airlines to maintain control of the onboard advertising space, as opposed to having ittaken over by bigger networks like Google, for example. To this end, the ADWG is working on defining specific targeting elements that must be written into the markup language delivered between in-flight ad servers and video players, known as VAST responses, as specified by the IAB.

Rosen says, “We’ve agreed that two bits of information are going to come from every seatback or passenger device when a VAST response commands the ad impressions beacon. There are dozens of elements that could be in the ad impressions report, but we’re starting with an impression identification, which could be an IP address, DRM ID or a seat number; and an ad insertion source, such as a flight number, tail number or a computer hardware ID.”

Making ad data consistent across the airline industry means that no matter the provider of the ad insertion server, ad reports can be verified by a handful of third-party institutions, which is paramount in gaining long-lasting media buy-in. Rosen summarizes, “It’s easy to verify something if everything you’re using is based on an open standard. We want to be unified enough that the agencies and the verification providers they work with will be able to automatically validate the impression reports we generate.”

“It’s about having a data-led approach to measurement so brands can feel comfortable ensuring their money was well spent.” – Dan Larden, Infectious Media

Michael Childers, APEX Technology Committee chair and Lufthansa Systems chief consultant, Content and Media Strategy, who understands the complex delivery chain of in-flight entertainment, says one of the challenges will be qualifying an airline’s ad inventory and the metrics it is able to offer in accordance with targeting standards across mixed aircraft fleets. “This may involve airlines identifying city pairs and noting the nuances of each route’s advertising limitations in terms of capturing particular granular data,” he says.

The airline industry is in the early stages of bringing programmatic advertising on board, but according to Childers, so is the rest of the advertising world. “In this whole new approach to advertising, almost everybody is at the beginning,” he says, explaining that there are still no protocols from industry regulators for realizing programmatic advertising in flight. 

Rosen adds that the next step is for the IAB Tech Lab to certify any airline’s ad impression measurement workflow. The specific events triggered within a video player, in response to standardized VMAP and VAST schema, must support the principles established by the Media Ratings Council, the nonprofit body in the US that ensures media measurement services are valid, reliable and effective. 

With a unified offering, the ADWG believes APEX can make sure the airline industry is seen as an attractive space for advertisers, while allowing carriers to maintain control of the relationship with their passengers.

“Get With the Program” was originally published in the 10.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.