Defining SSPs, Ad Exchanges And Rubicon Project

platform eraThe distinction between an ad exchange and a supply-side platform (SSP) has become muddled as the once disparate but complementary technologies have merged.

Rubicon Project’s description of its offering as an “Advertising Automation Cloud” in its S-1 filed Tuesday underscored that shift and showed how companies originating as SSPs have attempted to shed the label.

The blurring of borders is a sign of market stability, said Alanna Gombert, GM of Condé Nast’s CatalystDesk. “Right now, we’re in the media platform stage,” she said. “We’ve evolved into a more mature market.”

According to Gombert, the difference between ad exchanges and SSPs was primarily important during the ad-tech industry’s infancy, when SSPs existed to support publishers in the confusing ad exchange environment.

“There is a need to call things very specific names. … any time there’s an innovation in the marketplace, and innovations happen quickly in our market because it’s digital and digital moves quickly,” she said.

Certainly the merging of the SSP and ad exchange isn’t new – both Gombert and Gary Sheynkman, director of adm ventures at VICE’s digital shop, Carrot Creative, point out that Google merged the SSP Admeld, acquired in 2011, with DoubleClick Ad Exchange.

The traditional difference may be that exchanges enable transactions, whereas SSPs do the same while also providing more tools to publishers, such as price controls.

But in general, Sheynkman avoids defining ad-tech companies. “If you look at various players over time, most companies in the space will develop a tool set to wedge themselves into the market and then add functionality to serve their clients better.”

He added,  “Rubicon might have started as an SSP with the purpose of yield optimization, but once they had enough inventory, migrating to exchange functionality was only natural.”

But the current industry trend in which, in Gombert’s words, “everybody is a media platform” doesn’t please every publisher.

“I personally don’t like it when that happens,” said Michael Persaud, director of programmatic advertising at Wenner Media (the company owns Rolling Stone and Us Weekly, among other titles). Persaud’s issue is that once SSPs, ad exchanges, DSPs and ad networks begin to consolidate, it confuses the issue around who – the advertiser or the publisher – is being catered to.

In Persaud’s experience, the level of service he’s received from the consolidated ad-tech solutions is vastly different from the level of service he’s received from the pure-play SSPs.

“In terms of reporting, certain SSPs will have limited reporting because they have to cater to the buy side,” he explained. “Maybe the buy side opted out of having their data in there. And certain rules and certain yield-management tools aren’t available because they have to cater to the entire ecosystem, rather than when you cater to just the sales side of it, you can have more tools that are advantageous to the publisher.”

Persaud also posited that smaller publishers tend to get inferior service compared to large online publishers like The New York Times or NBC. “Your clout is important in terms of what gets transacted,” he said.

Despite Rubicon’s expansion in the ad-tech ecosystem, Persaud said he’s gotten “amazing” customer service from the company both at Wenner Media and at his previous job at The Wall Street Journal. “I would assume no matter where Rubicon goes, they would continue to have great features,” he said.

Of course, Persaud’s expectations reflect his view on Rubicon – one that might cause Rubicon CEO Frank Addante to bristle: “I see them as a yield-management tool, an SSP where I can have inventory and do more than just buy and sell it.”

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