Why StubHub took programmatic in-house

A year ago, StubHub wondered if it really needed agencies to handle programmatic ad buying on its behalf. One year later, it has decided the answer to that question is a simple “no.”

Now, the brand has its own demand-side platform powered by Turn and a data-management platform provided by BlueKai. StubHub also partners with a range of rich-media and brand-safety companies. A core team of just three people manages the stack. Other than some help here and there from technology vendors, it’s completely self-sufficient.

“When it comes to buying ads programmatically, agencies don’t have a role in our case,” said Lee Engel, StubHub’s head of programmatic advertising. “As a business owner, we want to be in direct control of the marketing levers, to adapt as quickly as possible to changing business requirements. We can be really nimble because we’re not working through an intermediary, and that’s important for programmatic.”

When he joined StubHub in November 2012, Engel was tasked with building its programmatic strategy and capability from scratch. That meant striking deals directly with technology vendors, hiring agency-like staffers to manage and optimize campaigns, and educating others at the company about what programmatic advertising actually is. Buying advertising from exchanges has proved much cheaper than the brand’s previous approach, which was geared largely around ad networks. What’s more, his small team is far more cost-efficient than paying an agency to do it.

“Efficiencies have dramatically improved. The media is cheaper and more effective, and we now have the ability to scale with a relatively tiny team,” Engel explained. “That wasn’t possible with our old model.”

StubHub is not alone. Rather than work with agency trading desks, a growing number of brands are taking a more hands-on approach to their programmatic buying. Kelloggs now works directly with demand-side platform partners instead of paying its agency, Starcom, to do so on its behalf. Last year, Kimberly-Clark asked its media agency, WPP-owned Mindshare, to build out a dedicated trading group to service it exclusively as opposed to funneling its dollars through its Xaxis audience-buying platform.

Engel admits the go-it-alone mentality probably isn’t right for every brand, however. StubHub is an e-commerce company that already has its roots firmly in data and optimization, so it is used to dealing with technology, data and analytics. It’s also been managing its search campaigns in-house for years, so it wasn’t a huge leap to bring display ad buying in-house too. Brands with in-house search teams are the most likely to attempt to bring programmatic display ad buying in-house, but others might not find the process as simple.

“I’m hard-pressed to imagine a world where all clients are doing this themselves, so there’s still a huge amount of value that agencies can and do provide in this space. It’s not necessarily all or nothing,” Engel said.

To that point, even things like staffing can be difficult for a company that has no real experience in dealing with technology or large-scale data analytics. First, a brand needs to find someone like Engel who is capable of building an effective tech stack, but then they need to find staffers capable of running it. Engel himself comes from the agency world, and he has found himself having to hire other former agency people to help him. “One of most challenging elements to doing this yourself is finding the right people,” he said.

But for StubHub, Engel said the approach shows great promise, though he is not yet sure exactly how much it could save the company in terms of agency fees and other costs. It is too early to tell. The company has spent 12 months piecing together its ad buying stack, and 2014 is the year it hopes to see exactly what it’s capable of.

“As much as we’ve done this year — and we’ve done a lot — we’ve only really scratched the surface,” Engel concluded. “Last year was a building year. Now we’ve built, so this year is time to hit the gas and run.”