Resource: The Adtech Stack

A handy resource to get you started on the journey to build a solid adtech foundation within your digital marketing organization.

Ok gang, this week's newsletter is designed to be a utility. You might not need this info right this second. Eventually, you will.

This is part of the adtech stack outline I wish I had when I first started in the business many years ago. For each layer of the tech stack, I'll provide a quick list of the tools that most brands need to be successful. 

1. Planning

A proper adtech stack begins well before the placement or purchase of an ad. It starts with tools that enable the creation of a solid media plan.

For those that have been following me for a while, you'll remember the "Warning: Your campaign (process) is broken" edition that outlined the best way to tackle your end-to-end campaign process.

Tools that assist the planning phase:

  • Reporting and data visualization: Wait, shouldn't this be a post-campaign measurement thing? You'd think so, but actually, your campaign reporting from previous campaigns is one of the most critical components required to plan new campaigns properly. Every campaign should leverage the learnings of the prior campaign.

  • Research: Availability varies widely based on your industry and market. However, there are several handy research tools that will help you better understand your planned audience and where you might be able to reach them. Some of these are baked into the other tools you use, such as your search platform or DSP.

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2. Workflows 

I'm often told, "ohh, our team is pretty small, so we don't need a project management tool."


You absolutely need one. Small, successful teams eventually become larger ones. There are also unforeseen changes to our ways of working like COVID-19 showed all of us. Even if you are a team of one, project management tools help you keep everything in line, transparent, measurable, and accountable.

Tools that assist with workflow:

  • Project and task management: There are many providers, and it is hard to pick the best one. At this point, deciding between the best in class offerings really comes down to subjective components like feel. However, all of them should allow you to:

    • Create and assign tasks

    • Set delivery dates

    • Track conversations, changes, and timeline adjustments

    • Measure workload and effort

  • User journey mapping and management:  A journey mapping tool allows you to build a plotline for your customers once they've visited your site or app. Think of this like a storyboard of the customer journey. At each touchpoint in the journey, you'll build out the if-than logic dictating what happens at each step. 

  • Approval tracking:  The larger your team gets combined with the decision-making authority at each stage, you may need an approval tracking solution. Sometimes you can get this solved with your overall project management suite. Other times, you might have to go looking in a few different places. For example, approvals for budgets and orders might exist in a procurement system.

3. Data

It is buzzword bingo in this section. Data, in general, is going to touch every other part of this outline. From planning through to campaign measurement, data is flowing inbound and outbound. 

Here are a few of the data related tools you should consider:

  • Data Management Platform (DMP): Generally speaking, DMP's live in the land of anonymized user data. The data you would be accessing does not necessarily stem from a first-party relationship with the customer. Instead, this is the toolset that will enable you to create third-party audiences that map back to your campaign targets.

  • Customer Data Platform (CDP): Shares responsibility (to some extent) with your CRM. Ultimately, your CDP is responsible for creating a singular, unified record of your known customers. Since most brands engage with customers in-person and online and across multiple platforms, we are often left with duplicate customer records. Plus, not all the customer records for a single person contain all of the same data fields. A CDP helps bring all the records together, normalize them, and ship them off to other tools in the ad tech stack. Unlike a DMP, your CDP deals with known customer data, or PII.

  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM): For some reason, when people hear "CRM," they automatically think of email. Maybe that's because it is one of the top use cases. However, a CRM is much more than an email engine. It should be the primary place that you harvest new leads and manage your overall customer relationship.

4. Buying

When most people think adtech, their mind jumps here. Our industry often equates adtech to transactional components. In reality, there's a bunch of tech that does the heavy lifting before we buy the first impression. 

Here's a few of the core buying platforms you'll need.

  • Ad server: This is the technology layer responsible for actually serving your ads to the consumer, and it is accountable for measuring that event. It is the "billable" system of record that tracks impressions, clicks, engagements, and more. This platform is also responsible for creative-level decisioning. When it is time to serve up an ad to a user, the ad server ultimately decides which version of the creative to provide based on the defined rules.

  • Demand Side Platform (DSP): The DSP is the buying platform that allows you to automate the purchase of ad impressions. As a marketer, you define the target audiences, contexts, and sites you'd like to buy impressions from. Along with your campaign targeting instructions, you provide your best bid. The DSP then uses its machine learning capabilities to buy your impressions at the best available price. All without ever needing to speak to a salesperson.

  • Dynamic Creative Optimization (DCO): These days, DCO is not necessarily a standalone solution. DCO providers are fancy ad servers that can provide more dynamic, personalized creatives to the consumer based on exponentially more business rules that you get to define. If personalization is a buzzword flying around your office, you'll likely be looking for DCO solutions soon.

  • Verification: Since we are talking about buying ads, it is important to measure the quality of the impressions. Verification providers will tell you if your ads were viewable, brand-safe, and served to real humans (instead of bots). Many of these providers can also provide proactive mitigation of these challenges instead of just passive measurement.

5. Measurement

Well, we've made it this far. How the heck are we going to know if we were successful? It is time to measure.

In this section, we need to account for any missing measurement components that are not already covered by other areas of the tech stack. For example, we definitely need to know how many impressions were served. Our ad server will be the primary system of record for those numbers. However, our DSP and Verification provider can also provide supplemental impression measurement.

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If one of our campaign goals boiled down to driving some sort of attitudinal or awareness shift among our consumers, how will we know if we succeeded? We will need to add in a brand lift (research) provider.

If our goal was online (direct to consumer) sales, we would need a way to capture the number of marketing-driven sales and the total sales value. In some cases, our ad server can capture that data. In others, we may need a standalone attribution vendor to help build our models.

Wrap it up!

If you'd like to discuss any specific vendors, feel free to DM me @travislusk on Twitter and LinkedIn. Or you can reply to this email newsletter directly.

I know this is not a comprehensive list. For example, I did not mention tag management or billing systems. So yes, there are a lot more components in the stack worth exploring. However, I wanted to provide you with the a starting point. Building a solid foundation with the basics makes life easier once you get more scale in spend and complexity.

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