TikTok has attracted a variety of brands, from Chipotle to Ralph Lauren, and even U.S. Presidential candidates, but it still has work to do in terms of making it easier for advertisers to use and keeping TikTok in their regular media plans. 

Ad buyers have a familiar list of shortcomings when it comes to TikTok: a mostly manual ad-buying process, a small sales team and key features missing like shopping inside ad placements and the lack of an open-source ads API.

For now, buyers are putting up with the hassles — and that’s because TikTok is the hottest app of the moment. The year-old app from Beijing-based ByteDance, just surpassed 1.5 billion downloads on Google Play and the App Store, according to Sensor Tower, with lifetime user spend reaching $175 million worldwide.

TikTok does seem to be addressing buyers’ concerns: It has begun scaling its sales teams, especially in the U.S. Still, buyers wish the overall process for buying ads on TikTok was more streamlined and involved less paperwork that’s also easier to decipher.

“The paperwork was complicated from our side,” said Dimitrios Bourmpos, director of paid social in EMEA, for ForwardPMX, adding that it’s “a lengthy process to go through all these different documents.”

The lack of a self-serve ad model is particularly challenging. Phillip Huynh, national paid social strategy lead for 360i said he wishes TikTok would invest more in self-service and education platforms.

“This not only empowers brands and agencies who want to learn more and test the platform, but it also allows their sales staff to focus on highlighting ‘why TikTok’ and ‘how to leverage TikTok’ as opposed to executing buys for brands,” Huynh said.

In a TikTok pitch deck from June, it’s clear TikTok is transitioning to a self-serve ad model, and it’s one that ForwardPMX is attempting to test in beta.

“Going direct is fine, but it’s not that easy,” Bourmpos said. His agency hasn’t yet run any ads on TikTok for its clients but would like to.

A TikTok spokesperson wouldn’t confirm anything about a self-serve ad model but told Digiday, “We’re exploring a variety of models and opportunities to create value for our brand partners, and we’re in early experiments.”

Opening up its API to third-party developers is another wish list item from some buyers like Bourmpos. That would allow advertisers to use third-party API tools to monitor their campaigns on TikTok like they do on other social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat.

Jordan Jacobson, vp and head of social media at iProspect, said he doesn’t think TikTok needs to open up its API immediately but said, “To attract SMB advertisers, it does completely. As they grow, it will be crucial to their success.”

Huynh said he doesn’t think it’s 100% necessary for TikTok to create an API to be a regular part of media plans, assuming TikTok eventually builds a self-serve ad platform.

“This platform will not only empower end buyers, but it will also allow TikTok’s sales and marketing group to focus in on explaining why TikTok is a good fit for brands, and making sure that brands adapt to the platform with relevant creative, influencers, etc.,” he said.

Carly Carson, director of social at PMG, said she wishes TikTok had API access and third-party ads service across all ad types and to integrate CRM. “All of those are table stakes to get TikTok to be a more evergreen partner of brands rather than a testing partner. They help connect brands to the right consumers on the platform.”

Earlier this month, TikTok introduced Share to TikTok with Adobe Premiere Rush, marking a first step in allowing third-party apps and developers to integrate with the platform.

Bourmpos also said that he wishes there weren’t so many different verticals for different teams, like a vertical for fashion and another for travel. “As an agency, we want to get access to self-serve. We want to go to TikTok and have an open conversation about our partnerships because having everything in verticals doesn’t help agencies go and talk to them directly about bigger partnerships and how to get into different beta programs.”

Brand safety was another feature all buyers mentioned as a concern. “They need to build [brand safety] to marketplace parity,” said Kieley Taylor, global head of social for GroupM. “There are common brand-safety standards that would help us measure risk and have more confidence to invest more.”

Jacobson said, “TikTok’s measurement and brand-safety solutions are actually rather impressive given their infancy.”

Another way in which TikTok could improve is to make its platform more shoppable, according to Carson. “It will be important to continue to find ways to create ad types that integrate shopping and e-commerce,” she said.

The Chinese version of TikTok already has robust e-commerce features and the company is testing shoppable videos outside of China at the moment.

But there’s a balance, too. “I think part of what makes TikTok so great is that the content all feels so authentic to the platform,” Carson said. “I would hate to see that get watered down by too much ad inventory; however, as always, we’d love to see ways for ad opportunities to be a little bit more shoppable.”

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