Header Bidding: Threat or Savior?

HEADER BIDDING: WINNERS AND LOSERS
Header bidding is washing over the AdTech ecosystem faster than any other tech, leveling the playing field between pubs and exchanges. Need the basics? Read these primers from Digiday and Adprofs, or our recent blog, for a quick history.

Adoption rates among US publishers are incredibly high – reportedly at 70%+. Big numbers – who are the winners and losers?

WINNER — PUBLISHERS
Header bidding is exploding because publishers reason (often correctly) that they are getting screwed by the second price auction and the intermediaries who may be rigging the system. Via header bidding, publishers are able to bypass the waterfall of exchanges, which increases overall eCPMs, provides more control over inventory, and relegates exchange(s) – mostly AdX – to sell “remnant”.  

Though there is some disagreement on the stats, header bidding on guaranteed inventory has increased eCPMs by at least 20%. For non-guaranteed inventory, header bidding has seen a 50% increase.

There are two reasons for this, with equal weighting:

  1. Header bidding exposes ALL inventory to bidders, rather than restricting visibility to unsold/remnant/low priority — high-value inventory competes with guaranteed demand.
  2. Bids through the header are passed from DFP to AdX, creating floor pricing. This increases eCPMs for AdX-sold inventory.

LOSER – PRIMARY EXCHANGES
Exchanges are struggling to catch up as win rates decline through increased competition. One needs look no further than the recent stock price collapse of Rubicon, who reported that header bidding is the primary culprit in their recent earnings calls (and which resulted in hiring Michael Barrett, a consistently successful CEO with outstanding reputation of selling the companies he walks into.)

PubMatic was also late to the game, resulting in a lull – though they have recently joined the fray and are appearing to be gaining momentum.

AdX, the largest of the primaries, is certainly a short-term loser, at least. Due to the new floors header bidding has created, AdX is able to sell inventory at a higher price. However, the volume of quality inventory has dropped, with the best inventory being snatched-up quickly in the header bidding cycle.

Then there’s Google… who I would never count out. While their response is developing, header bidding is also threatening their core ad-server dominance. But, Google is encouraging publishers to explore competitive ad-servers that have built-in programmatic capabilities, as opposed to DFP, in which the exchanges are separate systems.  

AppNexus seems to have woken up with their open source solution, prebid.org, but it’s too early to be certain how they will factor long-term, although they are clearly gaining steam.

WINNER — SECONDARY EXCHANGES
Secondary and tertiary SSPs/Exchanges – traditionally the third, fourth, or fifth calls on the remnant inventory chain – were used to seeing inventory picked-over by AdX, AppNexus, Rubicon… Thanks to header bidding, these smaller SSPs and exchanges can offer the same inventory, at the same time, as the big exchanges, and compete on price and service. Now, it’s the biggest exchanges (with the noted exception of AppNexus) who are scrambling to catch up.

Certain other exchanges, in particular OpenX and Index Exchange, made big bets early on in the header bidding model. SOVRN has also fared well through this upheaval. SOVRN sees 100% of a given publisher’s inventory, and their volumes and eCPMs have increased. And yes, they also incur ‘listing fees’ for 100% of the inventory — but the top line is exploding.

WINNER — DSPs
While they encounter significantly higher listening costs to manage the huge volume of increased impressions, DSP’s now see all of a publisher’s inventory. This visibility includes the most valuable impressions, driving up CPMs and overall sales, even as win rates are lower due to the massive amount of visible inventory.

LOSER – NETWORKS
Networks have been in decline for many years – header bidding is not a single, fatal blow. What’s more: a number of networks are still competing successfully, both integrating inventory into exchanges and leveraging data.  

However, header bidding is going to ultimately subsume what is left of the network marketplace. Some will emerge stronger by managing header bidding solutions for smaller publishers, but those who are primarily aggregating inventory will likely be destroyed.  

THE BIG QUESTION
How will the emergence of server-to-server header bidding impact the adTech landscape?

Short term, it appears to not only help publishers, but also favor smaller exchanges.  

Server-to-server header bidding is, essentially, a publisher selecting one exchange and giving that exchange all of their inventory. The publisher is then not only seeing the “unsold,” but 100% of the inventory (like all header bidding). However by doing so publishers are opening themselves up to many of the same transparency problems of yesterday’s exchanges. Plus, cookie-syncing issues are emerging with server-to-server solutions (not to worry here – these issues will be fixed.)

The biggest publishers with the highest-quality inventory don’t need an exchange. Companies like Purch have already tackled this, and we are seeing the emergence of other companies stepping unto the breach to support publishers, deploying their own server-to-server solution.  

I suspect the biggest and best publishers, used to working with a healthy percentage of media spend, will migrate to a fully-transparent server-to-server model. This will force the exchanges to become more transparent, change their pricing, and provide different levels of service. Publishers will jointly create a cookie-syncing solution, and eventually attract the largest DSPs to bid directly – nary an exchange in sight.   

Exchanges will be forced to provide their services to the mid- and long-tail. While some may survive, many will fail. The exchanges who do survive will likely be those already focussed on the long tail (think: SOVRN) versus those competing for the comScore 200.  

I am left with the thought that perhaps the exchanges and SSPs will (ultimately) win — in the short term with all publishers, but in the long term, perhaps only with smaller publishers. There are many exchanges – some are focussed on a more vertical approach (think: mobile or video) and others on providing higher-quality service, trying to differentiate themselves in other ways. What’s more: The biggest exchanges have always been “display first,” and their business models will come under increased pressure as header bidding tech becomes more ubiquitous.

Plus, we cannot overlook the benefits of deploying one’s own solution, extending further into the market.

ONE STEP AT A TIME
Sure, header bidding doesn’t fix many of the other problems with the programmatic marketplace (fraud, walled gardens, viewability, effectiveness…) but this shift is returning some pricing power back to independent publishers.

That can only be good for the industry.

…WE’RE JUST GETTING STARTED
Industry Index is exploring server-to-server v. browser-based header bidding solutions at our upcoming Roundtable, with some of the smartest names in the field. Jonathon Shaevitz will moderate. Get your tickets here.

It’s 2017… Tear Down These Walled Gardens!

AdTech has manifested into a two-tiered ecosystem: independent publishers and “walled gardens.” The latter are the cool kids on the playground – you can play with them… just as long as you play by their rules.

Let’s start with some clarity: Facebook and Google are the poster children for the lot which includes Amazon, Snapchat, Yahoo, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Twitter… the walled gardens, AKA the “easy button.”  PRINTADTECH notes that all require the use of their own systems, dashboards and metrics. With that, these walled gardens retain significantly more of each dollar into their respective ecosystems.

Compare them to independent publishers, and the indies’ data doesn’t measure up. The walled gardens are able to reach a much larger audiences with deeper targeting power. At our last Roundtable it was noted that Facebook and NewsCorp (an independent publisher) hold different apparent value in the marketplace, and that is reflected clearly in a recent Yahoo Finance post, “The two tech giants [Facebook and Google] accounted for 103% of the growth in the digital ad industry, while everyone else shrunk 3%.”

Big buts, though. If your company makes its money by selling online ads, or you are an ad agency… your warm-fuzzies have vaporized. For you, easy-button companies have a different name: Frenemy. Industry professionals including Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising agency, have argued that the industry must take action, and In a recent Huffington Post article, Mark Haviland, EVP at Rakuten Marketing Europe stated, “In order to combat walled gardens and earn the trust of advertisers, the digital world needs to be increasingly transparent.” Note the language here. “Combat.”

Put another way – AdTech as an industry cannot continue to allow the players to be the referees. DIGIDAY notes that Facebook and Google are restricting third party AdTech companies from operating on their networks, stating, “It raises questions about whether Facebook and Google’s AdTech products can be trusted to function objectively, or if they’re merely being used to funnel ad spend through their respective media networks.”

Forrester took a deeper look at the sacrifices made in customer intelligence when working with walled gardens, recognizing that the value coming back over the wall isn’t necessarily equal. Of the research, Media Post summarized, “The short-term benefits are the ability to leverage unique user identification for targeting the measurement. However, the strategic and operational downside of closed ecosystem is that they increase cost and prevent brands from reaching consumers across channels. They leave marketers with a dangerous blind spot, losing ownership of key data pertaining to their consumer over time and coming to depend on walled gardens for customer intelligence.”

Facebook admitted to its third measurement blunder, and advertisers are calling for more accountability. Procter & Gamble announced they would be cutting their investment in targeted Facebook advertising, and Sorrell notes on the Huffington Tech article, “it could even result in budgets being switched to focus more on traditional channels, such as TV.”

Substitution is not a remedy, however. If we are going to continue enjoying the fruits of the walled gardens – and they are juicy – a checks-and-balances initiative has to be implemented now.