Has Sell-Side Ad Tech Become Too Complex?

The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is by Paul Bannister, co-founder and executive vice president at CafeMedia.

A few years ago, publishers had a pretty simple monetization stack: an ad server, typically DoubleClick for Publishers, Google’s AdX enabled as their primary remnant fill platform and maybe a tag-based supply-side platform.

They could work across those few platforms and optimize their yield. It was easy to manage monetization, particularly in the days when most publishers were flush with revenue on the direct sales side and programmatic was just a backfill choice.

As the market increasingly moved dollars to programmatic while IO-based business declined, the ad stack that a publisher must manage has become more complex. Now, a publisher runs multiple header bidders, a wrapper tag, server-to-server connections, wrapper analytics, malicious ad-blocking tech and more. Plus, they’re managing discrepancies across vendors, dealing with spotty and slow payments, looking out for clawbacks and monitoring their inventory quality.

I’m tired just writing those sentences, so imagine how painful it is to deal with on a daily basis. Oh, and I can’t forget the legal analysis publishers have to do to get ready for GDPR.

Previously, publishers had to be expert at content creation, audience acquisition and sales. Now added to that mix are data science, technology and yield optimization. The sales process itself has become more sophisticated too, not only do publishers need to close the deal to get private marketplace dollars, they need to actively manage those campaigns to make sure they scale and perform.

How publishers are coping

There are two groups of publishers for which this has been less of a problem, occupying the opposite ends of the spectrum: the very large publishers and the small programmatic specialists.

The very large publishers have been able to throw resources and staff against the problem and (mostly) get to a good place. Programmatic specialists such as Granite Media and Slader have invested heavily in technology, yield optimization teams and tools to become great at monetizing through programmatic channels.

Publishers in the middle struggle as they don’t have the financial backing to hire necessary teams and build out platforms, nor do they have the single-minded focus of a small specialist. But scale or agility are not panaceas. Even at these two ends of the spectrum there are significant challenges, with many smaller publishers struggling to hire staff and build platforms, while many large publishers are unable to move quickly enough to keep up with the market.

At almost all levels, companies are set up in suboptimal ways, unsure of what to do with the reams of data they have and getting conflicting and erroneous guidance from their vendors. They’re hiring staff and investing in programmatic, but not as much as they need to, as their budgets are already stretched.

There remain some programmatic atheists who are staying out entirely, although the number is shrinking. In the past, many firms refrained on principal to protect their direct sales or because they didn’t trust ad quality technology, but nearly none remain in this group. Most of the publishers that stay out of programmatic do so because they don’t even know where to begin or who to talk to.

Do real solutions exist?

What publishers can do is start getting picky. They can choose partners carefully and opt for fewer. They can really optimize those they work with and deeply understand the ins and outs. Only when publishers feel that they have mastered that single piece of the puzzle should they move onto the next.

They must constantly challenge their choices and make sure to leave no stone unturned since even seemingly small decisions can have a large impact. It may take time to get to the best setup, but it’s worth the time to get things right.

Publishers can also talk to other publishers and get their recommendations of the best and most trusted partners. While every publisher’s configuration may be unique, there is a ton of common ground that can be learned from. There’s a fairly short list of ad tech partner that are worth partnering with, and other media companies can help you stay on the right path.

Complexity is here to stay – the inefficiency of the programmatic markets doesn’t seem likely to disappear, and a sophisticated ad stack is best suited to optimizing for that. The question for many publishers is whether they can navigate this minefield of complexity and find partners that help them simplify things and maximize their revenue at the same time.

Follow Paul Bannister (@pbannist), CafeMedia (@CafeMedia_) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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