Direct advertising, self-serve advertising have their pros and cons

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


Welcome from London, England.

In this newsletter, I will talk about the ways we can sell our advertising inventory and look at the option of a self-service offer.

Direct sales have been a part of our “sell” for many years now and will be around for many years to come. However, in many markets, there is a self-service consideration, which I will explore here. In a world where programmatic advertising has emerged and even become a dominant way to sell, we should not overlook direct sales nor the option of self-service — especially for smaller, perhaps local, media and advertisers.

Direct sales 

In my opinion, media companies need to add to their programmatic services a direct sales facility — especially when it comes to booking campaigns for the bigger clients and/or agencies and brands, which normally will include the high-value advertising accounts.

In the current environment of much global uncertainty and the continued recovery mode from a pandemic, it’s really important to ensure we are developing our most valuable (and profitable) relationships. 

All of which leads us firstly to direct sales. 

Whilst direct sales offer sales teams valued face time with their best ad clients, this also benefits brands. Buying direct enables advertisers to run a myriad of customised campaigns across multiple ad channels and gain access to guaranteed ad inventory for a certain price on certain Web sites. 

This also can help with brand safety, a key concern for many advertisers in an environment where fake news and misinformation can be prevalent.

Direct ad sales though can be a labourious process for some, chiefly smaller, media organisations. It needs your sales teams to carry out a concerted human effort with regard to satisfying client wants and needs, or maybe campaign negotiations, contracts, etc. This requires a “not insignificant” commitment to time and resource — as well as the possibility of human error — which is particularly of concern to local and regional media, where money and effort expended usually needs to be more frugal.

Due to the nature of direct sales being very much “hands on,” it’s probably now best to seek an alternative to this type of process for the more low-value accounts.

High- vs. low-value accounts 

While all of your ad clients should receive excellent service from us (a given), specific levels of service should be proportionately tailored to each client account.

The actual value of an advertising client may help dictate which ad service is the best option.
The actual value of an advertising client may help dictate which ad service is the best option.

At the end of the day, it takes the same level of time and effort to process a one-off £100 order as it does with a £50,000 order from a major advertiser.

A possible alternative for some is to offer our clients a self-service answer for their smaller advertising buys. This will free up time for sales teams to focus on the larger or possibly more complex accounts that generate greater returns.

So, what’s this self-service offering all about?

Self-service advertising

In 2017, self-serve advertising saw a rise in popularity as many media buyers looked for new ways to increase the level of trust and transparency within their ad spending processes. 

Self-service ad platforms have a chief role to play in the forthcoming post-cookie digital advertising environment. With no cookies, many popular ad channels are soon going to quite literally cease, including behavioural targeting, re-marketing, and frequency capping to name but three.

Self-service advertising allows an advertiser to determine elements for their ad campaigns without interacting with sales team members.
Self-service advertising allows an advertiser to determine elements for their ad campaigns without interacting with sales team members.

Media companies and advertisers alike are now seeking new ways to focus on upgrading their ad tech stacks to protect revenue streams.

So, what does self-serve advertising actually mean? 

From a mix of industry expert definitions, I have formulated my own version of what I believe self-serve advertising is. It refers to allowing an advertiser to determine elements for their ad campaigns (e.g. budgets, time frames, display locations, etc). This, whilst buying digital ads and (importantly) without interacting with a sales team.

Many self-service platforms also offer programmatic functionalities, i.e. automatically managing when and where to show specific ads based on the available ad inventory.

Self-service ad platforms vs demand-side platforms (DSPs

Self-service ad platforms and DSPs are different service offerings, despite many self-service platforms commonly (and wrongly) being referred to as DSPs, largely due to the popularity of DSPs. The subtle difference between them is the advertiser’s ability to (or not to) control their ad supply sources.

The advertiser in a self-service platform environment is only able to target/reach audiences within the platform’s own “walled garden” — in essence, the audience(s) curated by the platform itself.

Demand-side platforms (DSPs) are not self-service ad offerings.
Demand-side platforms (DSPs) are not self-service ad offerings.

Self-service also allows advertisers to buy ads whilst, crucially, managing their own ad campaigns without any human interaction. But they aren’t technically DSPs because they don’t allow the advertiser to directly control their supply sources … and they are usually owned by a third-party ad tech vendor.

Examples of self-serve advertising platforms

There are differing types of self-serve ad platforms online, many of which are offered by major Big Tech providers. 

Social media platforms are popular amongst advertisers as those advertisers are without doubt amongst the millions of people who already use them to send messages and share content with each another. They feel they already know the value of the platforms from their own personal experiences. Media buyers are able to log in and access a control panel through which they can specify the details of their ad campaign.

Meanwhile, advertisers can use demographic data to target specific user segments that provide a high levels of relevance, with, to be fair, an impressive choice of supported formats such as display, audio, video, and native ads. 


Media-owned self-serve ad platforms 

There are certainly some drawbacks to relying just on the tech platforms for advertising, however. 

For advertisers, an inability to negotiate CPM rates can make ad campaigns expensive. Also, while Google offers reporting, they don’t always include all the finer, more detailed data/insights advertisers might want to access.

Media companies, however, are able to operate their own self-serve ad platforms, allowing them to set their own rates and terms/conditions. Media owned versions allow advertisers to enter the details of their ad campaigns and launch them without any human involvement.

Likened by some to an “ATM for ads,” media companies can showcase their premium ad inventory, and advertisers simply enter the details of their campaign and pay directly with their credit cards.

There can always be flexibility built in for both parties to speak to each other to secure the best possible rates and terms via a direct deal. And because the media owns the ad serving platform, they’re also able to offer the highest level of reporting transparency to their advertisers.

The pros of self-serve advertising 

The customer experience is good. It alleviates much “friction” between the media and their accessibility to get what they’re looking for, particularly with smaller advertisers, who feel they are in control.

A self-serve ad platform helps to automate the sales and ad placement process for smaller media companies, saving time and reducing costs of sales. As one commentator recently observed: “It’s as close to a ‘set it and forget it’ solution as you can get in digital advertising.”

While the platform seems to be owned by the media, the ad platform itself is updated/maintained in the background by a third-party ad tech company, having been white-labelled and hosted within the media’s Web site.

Overall, both media and advertisers can save time and overhead costs that are usually associated with manually striking a direct deal. Costly meetings held between sales, ad ops, and other stakeholders can all be replaced and effectively managed by pre-ordained, self-serve protocols. 

In addition, media companies are able to show total transparency of their pricing and deliverability, while advertisers can simply initiate their ad campaign whenever it’s convenient for themselves. 

From the advertiser’s point of view, those looking to expand their campaign reach through self-serve options should consider where their target audiences live and “hang out” and whether or not certain platforms can provide a high level of audience addressability. This is important for media companies to grasp when dealing with clients. Can you prove that to them?

It’s also important to stress to advertisers that working with media-owned, self-service platforms can be advantageous, too, as often they can’t communicate with or negotiate with the tech platforms — whereas with media houses, they can.

Overall, for media companies looking to host their own self-serve ad platform, working with a reliable service provider that understands the shifting landscape of ad serving is essential.

Maybe self-service is a consideration for you to add to your client ad channel mix.

Further reading

About this newsletter 

Today’s newsletter is written by Mark Challinor, based in London and lead for the INMA Advertising Initiative. Mark will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of global news media advertising. Sign up for the newsletter here.

This newsletter is a public face of the Advertising Initiative by INMA, outlined here.

E-mail Mark at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions or follow him on Twitter (@challinor).

About Mark Challinor

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