Home AdExplainer AdExplainer: The Rise Of Sell-Side Curation

AdExplainer: The Rise Of Sell-Side Curation

Comic: S.P. O'Middleman's

Audience curation is a manifestation of what the online ad industry has long been calling for: closer collaboration between partners that isn’t built on unreliable third-party signals.

To curate custom ad inventory, buyers have started working more closely with the sell side.

Publishers have strong insights into user browsing behavior that advertisers can use for first-party audience matching.

But the end of third-party cookies isn’t the only motivator driving the trend toward sell-side curation.

Supply-side platforms, data management platforms, alternative identity providers and clean rooms are also reacting to buy-side concerns about the quality of inventory on the open web. Advertisers are worried about brand unsafe placements, made-for-advertising (MFA) sites and underperforming inventory. They want to be more deliberate about the media they buy.

Working more closely with sell-side partners gives brands more transparency into audiences and supply.

But sell-side curation also enhances a publisher’s own contextual targeting capabilities, which is becoming more important as data privacy pushes campaign targeting away from an overreliance on user behavior and toward content-based signals.

Curation market evolution

Deal curation has always been part of programmatic advertising. It involves packaging publisher inventory into a private marketplace (PMP) and enhancing it with audience data.

But curation is evolving.

Typically, it’s been done through a DSP’s data marketplace, where advertisers pay to add third-party audience signals to their campaign targeting. DSPs have long used third-party cookie integrations to facilitate audience creation.


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But SSPs began releasing their own specialized curation offerings with the launch of solutions like PubMatic Encore in 2020 and Xandr Curate in 2021. Other SSPs, including Magnite, Index Exchange and Nexxen, have also hopped on the trend.

Having SSPs in the mix has helped curation grow to a $1 billion industry over the past five years, according to Drew Stein, CEO of Audigent, a DMP that has rebranded as a curation platform. The curation market could grow to $5 billion over the next two to three years, he added.

SSPs are trying to corner the curation market because they’re less reliant than DSPs on third-party cookies. “The old way of having a deterministic identifier that gets hosted in a matching table is going to lose fidelity,” Stein said.

Xandr’s success with Curate – which launched months before the company was acquired by Microsoft – is widely credited with kicking off the SSP curation trend.

Xandr, which operates both a DSP and an SSP, realized that signal loss presented an opportunity to shift its DSP’s curation features to the sell side, said Chris Cattie, Microsoft Advertising’s US lead for Curate sales.

By doing so, Xandr could serve enterprise data companies and retail media networks that wanted to have more control over deploying their first-party audience data programmatically without needing data integrations with various partners, Cattie said.

And the platform could also support “buyers that don’t want to buy open exchange,” he said.

Publisher benefits

Although retailers were among the first publishers to embrace sell-side curation, other publishers have followed suit over the past few years, albeit belatedly.

“Publishers have commonly been slow to monetize their data effectively,” Cattie said.Comic: The Curated Marketplace

Eventually, however, larger publishers caught on because their audiences are most in demand, and now, middle and long-tail publishers are also looking to curation as a way to boost their value in the marketplace.

Matching ID graphs between advertisers, publishers and third-party brokers is more effective when it’s done on the sell side, Cattie said. “We’ve heard from clients that there’s a 25% to 40% lift in reach when audiences are applied on the sell side.”

Sell-side curation also addresses one of the main concerns buyers have about publisher first-party data: that no single publisher’s audience has enough scale on its own. By participating in curated marketplaces, however, publishers can offer off-site audience extension similar to retail media networks.

“We’re moving toward a world where most publishers will be deploying PMPs to give buyers that access point,” Cattie said.

Boosting contextual

Sell-side curation also helps put a new shine on tried-and-true contextual targeting, which some advertisers consider a little too old school.

Combining high-quality contextually relevant publishers with first- or third-party audience data at scale makes the inventory more valuable to buyers, said Scott Ensign, chief strategy officer at agency Butler/Till.

“That’s where we start to see the magic happen with curation,” he said.

For example, it makes sense to target a campaign for a psoriasis medication using contextual signals to target people who visit pages on WebMD about the disease. But such inventory tends to be limited, and it’s not uncommon for CPMs to fluctuate by as much as 25% year over year, Ensign said.Comic: Dusting off a classic.

As a solution, Butler/Till works with its sell-side curation partners to include inventory from other publishers that appeals to the same audience but at a lower cost. Articles and retailer pages about clothing that helps hide psoriasis flare-ups, for instance, could complement the WebMD inventory.

CTV deal curation

Whenever off-site audience extension comes up, though, so does the question of transparency.

The sell-side approach to curation gives ad agencies more transparency into the inventory they’re buying.

“Having a direct relationship with a curation partner means we’re selecting those things together,” Ensign said, “and we understand what we’re going after from the beginning.”

Although DSPs sometimes offer placement-level transparency after impressions are delivered, buyers “wouldn’t have as much input into creating that marketplace,” he added. Instead, they’d mostly have to select from a DSP’s standard off-the-shelf curated audiences.

Nexxen, for example, which also operates both a DSP and an SSP, collects content metadata from publishers to handpick inventory for multi-publisher deals on the SSP side, said Ally Appelbaum, VP of enterprise supply partnerships.

Placement-level transparency is especially sought after in the CTV market. But those publishers are hesitant to share that information with advertisers due to limitations in carriage agreements with content partners or to reserve such data for direct deals, Appelbaum said.

But sell-side curation creates a better balance between advertiser and publisher priorities.

“Some publishers are comfortable passing everything, some only pass genre and rating or channel and network,” Appelbaum said. “But even if we’re not quite at the show level, we can get closer to meeting the advertiser’s needs.”

More granular targeting is especially helpful for certain advertisers, like alcohol brands, that have strict requirements for where their ads can run, Appelbaum said. But it’s also useful for publishers that might want to ensure alcohol ads only run within certain content or at certain times.

But there’s another compelling reason CTV publishers are starting to offer more placement-level granularity: revenue. Publishers can charge a higher CPM for curated deals.

Curating your problems away

However, higher prices also come with a promise of higher quality.

For example, sell-side platforms pitch curation to buyers as a way to avoid MFA publishers and other undesirable placements, which don’t get included in curated marketplaces – or at least, they shouldn’t.Comic: The MFA Cafe

An SSP wants “to be able to say to buyers, ‘I have high-quality supply and can help you address the issues getting headlines,’” said Ensign, pointing to the ANA’s programmatic transparency report last year which found that advertisers waste around $13 billion on MFA sites annually.

Beyond the MFA scourge, advertisers working directly with SSPs on curation can also avoid bid duplication, which is when SSPs send multiple requests selling the same inventory on a publisher’s site, said Eli Heath, head of identity, global partnerships and product at Lotame, another former DMP that now offers curation services.

Plus, sell-side curation offers a way for publishers to activate their first-party data programmatically, which they’ve been told they need to do for years to improve their long-term monetization prospects.

Combining curation, context and audience “is a way to value the publisher side of the equation,” Ensign said.

“We need quality publishers in this ecosystem,” he said, “and we need for them to have a meaningful monetization path.”

Correction 5/21/24: This article originally said curation has grown from a $1 billion market to $5 billion over the past five years. Audigent’s Drew Stein clarified that the curation market has grown to $1 billion over the past five years, and it could grow to $5 billion within the next two to three years.

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