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Creatives: An Overview

You may want to read Introduction to Ad Serving first.

A creative is the actual advertisement viewed by a user. Creatives can be purely brand promoting, but many creatives are intended to convince a user to take some action, like sign up for membership or make a purchase. Creative formats include GIF, JPEG, JavaScript, HTML, Flash, and others, and they can be static images or they can contain video, they can expand, etc. These files are managed via an ad server, which is responsible for sending the file to the browser at the time of an ad call.

"Creative" vs. "Impression" and Third-Party Creatives

An impression is the act of displaying a creative on a webpage. Sometimes serving a creative and serving an impression is essentially the same thing, but often the server deciding what advertiser should display a creative, the server deciding what creative should be shown, and the CDN (content delivery network) that actually hosts and returns the creative image file are all different. In this case, the act of serving an impression and serving the creative are two different events. Of course in reporting, no matter how many servers are involved, the number of impressions and creatives served should match, if all went smoothly.

Example: Third-Party Creatives

In the above diagram, the ad tag is passed to the publisher's ad server, which decides what advertiser gets to show on the page. This ad server might be run by an ad network, or an exchange, or AppNexus, or the publisher itself, or some daisy chain of partners. In any case, the winning advertiser uses third-party creatives rather than a creative hosted by this ad server. So instead of returning a Visa creative to the browser, the exchange returns a Visa tag. The tag pings Visa, and Visa returns a URL pointing to a JPG creative in its CDN.

Why use third-party creatives?

Most advertisers prefer to have all creatives served from a single "ad server of record." They may work with ten different networks, exchanges, publishers, or platforms, and if creatives were hosted by each of these, Visa's reporting data would be scattered. In addition, Visa may want to maintain control over its creatives and probably wants to independently verify that its creatives are being properly served. With a single ad server Visa can compare impression numbers with its partners to make sure everything is working correctly.

AppNexus Perspective

Let's say AppNexus is the primary ad server in the example above. When an advertiser is assigned an impression within AppNexus, AppNexus will return a creative tag to the browser. If the advertiser hosts their creatives with AppNexus, this will be their actual creative, or the location of the creative in the AppNexus CDN. But if their creatives are third-party creatives, AppNexus will return an ad tag or a URL that redirects the browser to the creative.

Impression Tracking Pixels

Now let's say that you are the advertiser, would like your home ad server to independently record all impressions served on your behalf, but you don't want to use third-party creatives because:

  • You want to minimize redirects and latency
  • You are working with a publisher who bans third-party tags because such tags can rotate creatives and be generally hard to audit

Example: Impression Pixel

In this case the network ad server is hosting the creative, but it also returns an Impression Pixel tag (yellow) pointed to the agency server as well as the creative URL (pink). The agency server has nothing to do with serving the creative, but they can record impressions through the pixel.

Tracking Clicks and Conversions

You may also want to track a creative's performance through:

  • Clicks: When a user clicks on a creative they are directed to a landing page. For example, they see an ad for Prostarr Sportswear, they click on the ad, and they are directed to These clicks are tracked by either a pixel on the landing page so that when the landing page loads, the pixel is fired, or by a URL associated with the creative that directs the browser to a click-tracking server before redirecting it to the landing page.
  • Conversions: The user immediately performs some desired action such as making a purchase or signing up for membership, or performs the action at some later time. Conversions may also be called acquisitions and are generally tracked through a pixel on, say, a checkout or signup page.

Content Delivery Network

A Content Delivery Network is a huge network of servers located across the globe that exist to deliver static content quickly. Most creative files are ultimately hosted in a CDN.

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