Now that virtual proofing, better print predictability, workforce reductions on the publisher side, and competitive pressure to keep the material submission window open as long as possible are becoming more commonplace, publishers are increasingly investigating whether or not ad portals are a practical fit for their operations. But, as for any substantial workflow solution, there are significant considerations: Namely, scalability; current workflow integration; customer education; and, perhaps most important, whether a publisher and its customers are ready to commit to a fully digital workflow. Otherwise, an ad portal makes no sense.

Fine-Tuning Profiles
There are a number of vendor solutions, but most support drag-and-drop functionality where the advertiser simply drags a PDF file of their ad (typically PDF/X1a) onto the browser window or an application icon and it’s preflighted against a checklist of profiles. But don’t think the desktop preflight solves everything: The profile checklist, which the publisher can adjust, has to be kept fairly innocuous or the file will never leave the sender’s desktop, getting perpetually bounced back for any number of infractions. "The idea is to push as much of the liability back on them, but neither upset them nor make it difficult to do business," says Peter Tomski, senior director, premedia and manufacturing at CMP Technology, which has developed a pilot version of a portal it is currently testing. "We’re not really flagging a lot as errors, we basically keep it to the major three issues-fonts, color spaces and resolutions."

This is an important distinction. While an ad portal’s preflight functionality can be set to test a variety of profiles, publishers generally keep it set low to catch only the most fundamental problems. The file ultimately will need to pass another quality check once it arrives at the publisher. But there are errors and then there are warnings, or false-positives. 

Examples of false positives, says Jeremy Carlson, manager, digital prepress and digital imaging at Advanstar Communications, are low-res drop shadows and noncompliant elements outside the trim of the file. Both are negligible issues in the long run. If set too high, the preflight process will throw a flag if it detects any low-res elements, even though low-res drop shadows are acceptable. "If an advertiser gets a notification that their ad is low-res they’re going to have to scramble for no reason," says Carlson. "This is sometimes more of a customer-service step rather than just shoving a preflight report back and saying, ‘Here, you go and fix it.’"

Generally, fatal errors flagged by the preflight trigger a PitStop report, which allows the advertiser to pinpoint the errors and correct them. The non-essential errors triggered are mentioned in the report as well, but as warnings, which the sender does not have to fix but must sign off on before sending the file to the publisher.

Once the file passes the preflight, the sender is then prompted to select a job ticket and at this point the ad portal reveals another major leap forward in efficiency. Most portal solutions have an interface with a number of fields that describe the job-magazine title, issue date, user name, advertiser name, and more-and this information is tagged to the file as metadata, which travels with it throughout the process and allows for greater file and asset management than an FTP site could ever manage.

Time Inc., as does CMP, uses an application service provider (ASP) model for its ad portal, which means all the hardware, software and service is provided and housed by the vendor. There’s a set-up fee and ongoing maintenance fees, but capex is kept to a minimum. This also means that files are initially housed remotely on the ASP server. The publisher downloads the ad files from there once an approval notification e-mail is sent. "They also house the file for us for a set period of time, and the beauty is you can use this feature for business continuity. In other words, if we cannot come into the office for whatever reason, we can download the files from a different location," says Kin Wah Lam, director of digital development at Time Inc.

Basic Requirements
Depending on where you are in your digital workflow development, an ad portal could make either hard or soft ROI sense. For CMP’s Tomski, whose operation had already been largely transitioned to a digital workflow and whose advertisers were fairly well-schooled in PDF/X1a creation, an ad portal was less of an ROI consideration and more of a step in closing the automated and digital workflow loop.

But if your operation still depends on hard proofs and files delivered via CDs an ad portal won’t make much sense. "You eliminate the benefit that you’re picking up by going through this process if you’ve automated every other aspect of the workflow but have this one critical component that lags behind," says Fred Raimondo, director of marketing, magazine group at Quebecor World, which, via partnerships with software providers, offers ad portal services to its publishing clients. "We’ve reached critical mass where, if you want to fully engage in the process of digitizing the workflow, they do have to accept that the technology works-and it does-and it’s really a cultural change. And to be competitive in those last-minute closes, they need to fully embrace the process."

Tips For Launching an Ad Portal
1. Understand your workflow and supply chain. Launching an ad portal will require some procedural changes.
2. Have a clear vision, and then commit. Don’t use a portal casually and continue to accept hard proofs and files delivered via CDs.
3. Have resources handy. Some advertisers still need to be educated on PDF creation. Have resources available on your portal site that educate senders on file standards and PDF creation.
4. An ad portal doesn’t eliminate your knowledge base. You will still need employees who know their way around a file and its standards and profiles.
5. Minimize capex. Many publishers are facing dwindling print-side revenues and increasing manufacturing costs. Don’t swallow up the efficiencies of an ad portal by having complex IT requirements.

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