Introducing OpenDirect (OOH)

Tim Harvey, Founder, Knitting Media, October 2020

The Lightbulb Moment

Let’s paraphrase the term ‘programmatic buying of Out Of Home Media’ for ‘changing a lightbulb’.

Using the Real Time Bidding (RTB) transaction for Programmatic OOH means you need to have four parties to ‘change a lightbulb’.

  • 1 x Media Owner to screw the lightbulb.

  • 1 x Supply Side Platform (SSP) to screw the Media Owner

  • 1 x Demand Side Platform (DSP) to screw the Media Buyer

  • 1 x Exchange to screw them all

Of course, ‘screw’ in lightbulb terms is a paraphrase for ‘help’ in the programmatic buying world.

It is indisputable that in online buying, SSPs, Exchanges and DSPs are a very helpful entity when you have fragmented and non-standardised inventory that is hard to buy in bulk.

  • The SSP makes sense of your inventory and fires out bid requests

  • The Exchange collates bids from multiple SSPs

  • The DSP makes sense of all the bids and ensures sure you buy the right ones.

However, this technical facilitation comes at a price, with around 45% of the media spend being diverted into this ecosystem.

But what about if you were buying media from an industry that already had standards allowing you to discover, evaluate and buy media directly and at scale?

Standards in power and connectivity allow people to change their own light bulbs themselves, without being ‘helped’ by middlemen.

Standards in Out Of Home trading and connectivity allow buyers and sellers to programmatically trade media themselves without being ‘helped’ too.

Spotlight to Floodlight

The online ‘real time bidding’ (RTB) trading mechanism is inherently one dimensional: a one dimensional offer in one dimension of time. It was made for one advert being shown to one person on one page or app. This is perfect for the nature of online advertising, but problematic when trying to convey the multi dimensional and real-world nature of Out Of Home advertising.

Out Of Home Media is a combination of audiences that see frames AND frames that see audiences over hours, days, weeks and months.

The key dimensions that need to be understood and discoverable by both Out Of Home Media Buyer and Seller are described below

The term frame describes the physical object that the advertising is displayed upon; this can be a classic printed media (with or without lighting and/or scrolling) or a digital LCD , LED or E-Ink device.

Once a frame can be described in terms of display type, size, aspect ratio and resolution it then needs to be described in terms of location and orientation.

Inventory is what an Out Of Home Media owner / publisher sells. It is crucial that a media owner is very clear about what they are delivering to a media buyer e.g. are you selling frames or an audience?

With regards to the audience, quantitative and qualitative metrics need to be determined by a 1st, 2nd or 3rd party definition which makes the viewers identifiable and understandable.

Out Of Home media is sold across spots, hours, days and weeks. Standards are required to describe how adverts are displayed in a frame from a start/end time and in the case of scrollers and digital screens, the share of that display time with other advertising and content.

When you are selling across various swathes of space and time, the ability to describe the pacing of a campaign becomes important. You will need to describe how the frames, audience and investment delivery is paced across the times and locations within a campaign period e.g. will the campaign deliver 10k All Adult impressions per day or week? Will I be ‘always on’ every day in every location during the campaign? Will my investment be the same over the campaign or happen in a burst at the start of the campaign period?

Because OOH delivers an audience via a frame in a moment in time, OOH can be quantified in terms of the audience cost (Cost Per Thousand), the frame cost (Cost Per Frame), or qualified as a fixed cost campaign.

OOH media is one of the most brand safe mediums on which to advertise. The publishing approval for distribution of content to the frames is controlled both by the media owner and in some cases the owner of the venue and/or public space where the frame is installed. The rules governing the prohibition of advertising categories and content need to be discoverable by the media buyer as early in the trading process as possible.

If a media owner cannot make any of the above dimensions of Out Of Home Media discoverable and buyable, they then have to rely on a chain of SSP/Exchange/DSP middlemen to do this for them.

Illuminating Standards

Thanks to a decade of hard work from joint industry organisations and communities around the world, we now have a wealth of resource for describing Out Of Home inventory, delivery, distribution, investment, brand safety and reporting

Examples include:

Joint Industry Committees have also created standards for both Inventory and Audience in Out Of Home media:

  • Route produces audience estimates for out-of-home advertising in Britain. The data published informs subscribers about how many and what type of people view an advertising campaign, and how often..

  • SPACE has created a single source data point to coordinate and categorise the unique identification characteristics of all UK OOH inventory

  • Geopath Audited circulation of Out Of Home media in the United States using audience location measurement, deep consumer insight, and innovative market research

With standards continuing to be developed for inventory and audience in global OOH marketplaces, we can now implement Programmatic Direct buying standards that automate the planning, buying, trafficking and reporting of a campaign.

Simplifying the Wiring

Without standards you need an SSP to make sense of your inventory to send bid requests, an Exchange to collate bids from multiple SSPs (so buyers can buy at scale) and a DSP to make sense of all the bids being offered.

With standards, an Out Of Home Media buyer can programmatically access a media owner’s managed product/deal catalogue, check live availability and then transact directly to secure their campaign.


OpenDirect is the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) Programmatic trading standard for Automated Guaranteed buying.

Automated Guaranteed is the method of buying which automates the digital direct sale. The deal is negotiated directly between buyer and seller (in-person or via a platform), the inventory and pricing are guaranteed, and the campaign runs at the same priority as other direct deals in the ad server. The RFP (Request for Proposal) and campaign trafficking process are completely automated within the technology platform. OpenDirect is the API specification which supports this process.

OpenDirect (OOH) is an approved IAB community extension designed for the real-world dimensions of OOH, allowing a client to explore as much standardised inventory, audience and time as you want them to, and then letting them buy in advance or instantly at the price you set.

A Spotlight on Direct Benefits

Both direct buying and bidding chains have their place in the Out Of Home Programmatic landscape, with a RTB ecosystem being a best fit in OOH markets that are fragmented and non-standardised. However, once buying and trading standards are available there are an array of benefits when trading directly.

OpenDirect (OOH) can reference any descriptive standards (Joint Industry Committee or any tagged third party standard) to make Out Of Home Media directly discoverable and buyable from a media owner, without the need for relying on an ssp’s exchanges, dsps infrastructure.

Comparison table by Gavin Lee, CTO, Posterscope

Bid or Buy is the Last Thing to Worry About

An OOH media owner should be in control of their products, prices and pacing before they even make the decision to trade via a bid (RTB) or buy (Direct) mechanism.

OpenDirect gives the media owner the tools to manage the way they productise, price and expose their inventory to buyers.

If this is an activity a media owner cannot automate, they surrender control of pacing, price and inventory to the DSPs, Exchanges and SSPs that sit between them and the media buyer.

End to End Automation

In addition to the control of inventory and costs that direct buying restores to a media owner, OpenDirect truly automates the programmatic process from planning, buying through to content serving and campaign reporting, all within a single trading schema.

The RTB method can only begin once a dealID has been created, which is the process that OpenDirect automates with its product creation and discovery.

The absence of this ability in RTB means that there are currently a lot of phone calls, emails and spreadsheets being fired about in the RTB ecosystem to get a campaign to the point where it can be set-up to be bought via a bidding mechanism (that is never actually used for bidding if it is a guaranteed buy).

Lay-down and Activation

Like RTB, OpenDirect allows the trading of Out-Of-Home media in advance and in real time. If a media owner has a Content/Scheduling Management System that can activate advertising in real time on their estate, it technically doesn't matter if the trading mechanic is a buy or a bid.

The fact you can trade in advance means that both classic and digital OOH can be traded in a programmatic way, and the buyer can transact both their ‘laydown’ and ‘activation’ strategies in a single system.

Paper is Just Slow Digital

Using the RTB mechanic for OOH inherently limits you to trade Digital Out Of Home, the OpenDirect method allows you to trade both Classic (Paper) medium alongside the digital medium. OpenDirect gives paper OOH inventory the benefits of being digitally tradable by audience and/or location, it's just that some frames can be updated quicker than others.

Less Risk of Unsold Space and Time

The physical nature of OOH means that like an airline, there is finite premium inventory to sell. If you really do need a particular billboard, at a particular place at a particular time, it is probably not the best idea to leave it to the last minute to get your flight away.

There is evidence of bid based SSPs putting pressure on media owners to leave a portion of their inventory unsold to stimulate the last minute market, but it would be only fair for a media owner to ask for a guarantee to hold this space open.

If you are investigating the bidding ecosystem in Programmatic Out Of Home, pay particular attention to the bid rate (i.e. how many of the bids you make available are actually bought by a DSP). Mature DSPs and trading desks make extensive use of frequency capping to avoid display wastage, so campaign activations may be fleeting in nature until trading desks can understand the benefits of a higher frequency, ‘top of the marketing funnel’ solution such as Out Of Home Media.

Avoid the Sales Scrum

A curious effect of the rise of SSPs, Exchanges and DSPs in the OOH space has been a whole chain of salespeople trying to sell the same media to the same customer. There’s nothing to stop the Media Owner, SSP, Exchange, DSP, Trade Desk and Agency all extolling the virtue of a particular slice of OOH media, but in Covid austerity that’s a lot of Zoom pitches for a Brand Marketer and/or Agency Buyer to get through without the prospect of a steak dinner and drinks in sight.

Content Critical Path

The real critical path for real time buying in OOH however is content approval. No matter how fast you can process a trade, the media file to be displayed needs to be seen and approved by a media owner, and in some cases signed off by a landlord, especially in airline and other transportation hubs. Even in an RTB scenario, content needs to be approved hours or days in advance before a campaign is activated. Last minute activation will only go as fast as this critical safety check.

Less Tax, more Value

With the RTB stack having a typical sales tax of 45% on top of agency and other standard buying fees, the use of the bidding stack can make a media owner's inventory up to 3x more expensive than buying directly. In an age where a brand wants to make every advertising dollar as efficient as possible, working smarter does not have to come with an oversized technical tax bill.

Shine with OpenDirect in OOH

It’s said that many hands make light work. In the case of OpenDirect (OOH) the way forward is being illuminated in the UK by the biggest OOH media owners and buying agencies in the world.

On the sell side, the media owners JCDecaux, Clear Channel, Global and Ocean Outdoor are adopting OpenDirect both in-house and with AdTech partners such as Signkick, Mereo, Key Systems and Viooh.

On the buy side, specialist agencies such as Posterscope, Talon, GroupM, Kinetic and Evolve have built and are further developing direct planning and buying platforms. This has been done with in-house resources and in some cases using 3rd party AdTech firms including Vistar and Knitting Media.

For 3 years, these sell side and buy side companies have come together via the ‘UK Out Of Home Standards Group’ to further develop the OpenDirect standard with the support of the IAB.

A weekly coding club assembles the coders and architects from each of these companies to record implementation examples, schemas and best practice which is freely available on the Outsmart Github site. What happens in #cOOHdingClub goes on Github.

Please take advantage of our work that builds on a decade’s worth of OOH standards development to deliver a programmatic direct buying method that makes the right deal available, to the right buyer, at the right time, in the right way.

The OpenDirect (OOH) trading standard is a free resource, with all documents, schemas and coding examples accessible here: