Header bidding has been such a runaway hit for publishers that it's required the development of a new technology to manage all the partners they want to add.
What seems a small change – the addition of a wrapper that organizes buyers as they enter the ad server – further solidifies header bidding’s place in the publisher toolset and portends future disruptions to how publishers serve ads.
The wrapper, also referred to as a framework or container, adds rules for the programmatic auction in a new place: the header of a publisher’s web page, which tech companies and publishers are clamoring to control.
In doing so, it solves one of the key problems holding back header bidding. While each new header-bidding partner boosts yield, it also introduces more code and complexity, creating a setup that’s “messy, lengthy and unmanageable,” said Peter Bernheim, CTO of Slader, a study guide website that added a wrapper to organize its partners a few months ago.
The header-bidding wrapper brings order to the chaos.
A Wrapper In Action
Celebrity news publisher APlus dived into header bidding last year. Its first few partners increased yield by 70% combined, and each one after that created an additional 10% to 20% boost.
To manage its partners and maintain yield, it added Prebid, an open-source wrapper it further customized, including contributing open-source code.
Once the wrapper was in place, APlus could easily run tests where it added and removed partners to monitor performance, a task impossibly complex before. The wrapper centralizes data collection, making it easier to analyze things like price and latency. Every partner is held to consistent timeouts and must use the same language to pass bid information into the ad server, which levels the playing field between header-bidding solutions.
APlus programmatic VP Stephanie Layser and engineer Nick Jacob, who together manage header bidding at the company, could not be more ecstatic about their success.
“Finally, the auction is taking place in a place where the publisher has total control: the page,” Jacob said.
How does a publisher like APlus choose a header-bidding wrapper? While the technology should be part of the decision– some might have more or less robust analytics or better-written code, or pass the bids into the ad server differently – the question of control should factor strongly in the decision, sources say.
Who’s Creating Wrappers?
The creators of wrapper technologies fall into three categories: open-source solutions created by exchanges, proprietary solutions created by exchanges and proprietary solutions created by non-exchanges like Technorati. This article mentions 10 that will be on the market by this year.
The two open-source solutions, Prebid and PubFood, were created by AppNexus and Yieldbot engineers, respectively. Prebid first hit the market last July. After a “full-court press” of development work, PubFood launched in Q4, according to Yieldbot operations VP Manny Balbin.
The two companies say they went open source in part to allay concerns about bias, but publishers are somewhat skeptical about how the code will evolve. Could a company “take back” the code at some point or unfairly control who contributes to it?
In the second category, Index Exchange, Sovrn and bRealTime offer wrappers and are also demand sources. Index Exchange and Sovrn offer free solutions, while bRealTime’s is paid.
Other wrapper offerings from exchanges are still waiting in the wings. PubMatic will launch its version in early Q2. Rubicon’s wrapper is in private alpha stage testing, said Rubicon CTO Neal Richter.
OpenX created a wrapper in early 2015, but set it aside because it didn’t meet its performance standards – a problem it’s found across the board.
“Not a single one worked as advertised, plus all had integration issues that compromised the experience in one way or another,” according to Qasim Saifee, SVP of GM of monetization at OpenX.
OpenX is working on a piece of technology, almost complete, that will address this issue “from a different angle,” Saifee said.
Not all wrappers come from SSP/exchange operators. Technorati’s SmartWrapper charges publishers on a CPM basis, touts better analytics than its competitors and recently signed Vox. MonetizeMore, which helps publishers increase yield by optimizing their ad stacks, offers its framework freely to publishers it works with and charge a fee to other publishers.
Publishers and tech companies whose code resides in these wrappers worry that the wrapper creator will look after its own interests first.
Their fear is understandable, since the origins of header bidding lie in Google's control of the ad server DFP and how it preferences its exchange over others within it. Using a header-bidding wrapper with a demand source behind it would be repeating the same mistake, some publishers worry.
No one AdExchanger interviewed found evidence that any wrapper technology preferred one demand source over another. Sources say that could still happen over time.
“I foresee there being one or two solutions in the long term,” said Kean Graham, CEO of MonetizeMore. “Once they own the auction, they can start tipping the scales toward their header-bidding network. They are moving their pawns toward that position.”
Even if the wrapper owner isn’t giving itself a leg up in the auction, it has other ways to work the prime spot to its advantage.
Being the owner of the wrapper gives the creator access to data from all the partners in the header. Many wrapper companies gave fuzzy answers to questions about when and for what purposes they accessed data from a publisher’s other partners.
Knowing what everyone else is bidding, for example, is powerful information that can be used to gain advantage in the auction.
Due in part to concerns about bias and buggy technology, some publishers using a wrapper reported initial pushback from demand partners about being put inside another wrapper, even if they eventually gave in. Others reported smooth sailing.
“I’ve worked up good relationships with partners, they’ve been wiling to experiment with us,” said APlus’ Layser, one of the first publishers to adopt the Prebid wrapper.
Right now, though, there’s one partner missing from her stack: Amazon’s A9. “They told us no way, they don’t touch anything that’s open-source,” she said.
APlus decided it wasn’t worth it to have a partner work outside the system it created and passed on working with Amazon.
Too Early For Standards
During this chaotic early stage, multiple wrapper products will crop up before the winners pull ahead and the losers drop out.
“Until we have publisher-led standards around this, there are always going to be splintered options,” said Emry Downinghall, director of growth and yield operations for StudyBreak Media. “But we are a long way away from that.”
Instead of adding an outside wrapper, Downinghall built tech internally to manage partners, in part because he thinks it’s too early to pick a wrapper.
AppNexus submitted its code to the IAB Tech Lab for review. Yieldbot made the Tech Lab aware of its code through informal discussions. But it’s unlikely that such an early-stage technology would be put forth as a standard anytime soon.
"[The] Tech Lab and its board of directors evaluate many things, [and] we have nothing to report at this time,” said Scott Cunningham, the organization’s general manager.
That makes sense, said Matt Prohaska, CEO and principal of Prohaska Consulting. “[The IAB] has a history over 15-plus years of not letting one vendor get a quick win.”
He does not expect a standard to emerge for some time.
AppNexus, which wants its code to become the open-source standard, said other companies will roadblock a standard.
“Google sees this as a massive threat to their dominance, and has no interest in having this adopted by the IAB,” said Tom Shields, AppNexus SVP of strategy for publishers.
The Publishers Paving The Way
For publishers that have already embraced header bidding, adding a wrapper may be the next logical step.
“This is going to gain significant market traction this year,” said Tony Casson, senior director of ad products for Sovrn. “Any time a publisher gets A) more control, B) more simplicity and C) higher yields, they’re going to take a close look.”
There’s a certain type of publisher that seems to be leading the charge into header-bidding wrappers.
Whether they’re in the comScore 100 or 1,000, these publishers care about programmatic revenue and are staffed to support this revenue stream. Publishers pursuing open-source solutions tend to be particularly technologically focused and have access to development resources.
Many tech companies with paid or supported solutions saluted the “DIY publishers” that implement open-source wrappers. But in the same breath, they made it sound like those capabilities are too advanced – too scary – for most publishers.
“It’s like trying to build your own kit car rather than leveraging the expertise of automakers who have been doing it for years,” said Evan Simeone, VP of product management at PubMatic.
But relying on a partner is a double-edged sword. Publishers must decide if they’d rather trust internal resources or an outside partner to quickly fix problems.
Those with a weak development team or limited development resources may decide it’s best to let the partner do the work for them. Publishers with a history of slow or buggy partners may not trust outside technology.
“We didn’t want to rely on a third party to manage something that central to our revenue stream,” said Ahmed Karim, who heads ad ops for Curiosity Media’s Spanish dictionary.
He picked Prebid over Technorati and Index Exchange when evaluating a partner a few months ago because of the control it gave him.
For many publishers, getting access to engineers isn’t practical. But Layser said publishers without a long-term plan of bringing coders closer to ad ops are missing out.
“The only way for publishers to realize their whole potential is to take control from a technological perspective, and siphon off the development resources to truly understand their stack,” Layser said. “Publishers have been saying for too long, ‘I don’t have the dev resources for that.’”
The world of direct sales and DFP requires ad ops teams possess technical knowledge, but not coding skills. The world of programmatic requires knowing code for publishers to be on a level playing field with programmatic partners.
It also requires a different kind of ad server. The rise of header-bidding wrappers is yet another sign that ad servers don’t work to bring in programmatic demand.
“The waterfall ad server is increasingly an aging solution,” Rubicon’s Richter said. “We all know this in ad tech.”
Header-bidding wrappers could be a hack for an aging ad server or they could offer a glimpse of what a new ad server would look like – one that moves toward a unified auction. Programmatic is killing the ad server and the waterfall, and header-bidding wrappers are just the latest nail in the coffin.