Gawker Reverses Course on Ad Exchanges

The list of publishers shunning ad exchanges is thinning rapidly.

Gawker Media is the latest publisher to succumb to market pressure. It has quietly opened up a private marketplace of its own in recent weeks as part of what it calls a “strategy shift.” Previously, Gawker said advertisers could only buy inventory directly from one of its salespeople. Select clients will now be able to bid for impressions on the site on a real-time basis, using demand-side platforms and agency trading desks.

“It’s rather a big step for us after years of playing down the ad tech game,” admitted Gawker Media’s business development lead, Erin Pettigrew. The decision was driven by a need “to keep pace with the fast-automating display buying market,” she explained.

The exchange will get going fully next year, but Gawker has already started selling some impressions through its Google-powered exchange. The company is currently experimenting with the types of opportunities it can offer clients, it said, including features such as retailer retargeting.

Some holes need plugging, too. On Thursday, some Gawker impressions were ending up on Google’s open exchange and were swiftly being snapped up by advertisers like pay-per-click ad firm Wordstream, and online retailer HiLine coffee. The long-term plan is not to make Gawker inventory widely available, Pettigrew stressed. The goal is to keep tight control over specifically who can access it, and how.

Last year, Gawker CEO Nick Denton told his employees that “the days of the banner advertisement are numbered” and that the future of the company’s revenues was in sponsored content and its “discussion platform” instead. This summer his hatred of banner ads seemed to have softened slightly when he made clear to Digiday that the company would cater to advertisers’ needs with more viewable display ad impressions. Once upon a time, Gawker chose to run artwork in its ad slots instead of backfilling with network ads, too.

The company’s sales strategy is now to have its salespeople focused on selling its custom programs through its Studio@Gawker unit, and to let technology handle the selling of its standardized display inventory.

“We expect our advertising to bifurcate between the branded content produced by Studio@Gawker that we sell directly and efficient, targeted display media sold via a private exchange,” Pettigrew said.

Gawker Media isn’t the only company to do something of a u-turn when it comes to programmatic selling. Major media companies once said they intended to avoid it altogether but eventually backtracked as agencies made it clear they intend to spend more of their clients’ budgets through automated channels.

Earlier this year, Turner said it refused to sell through exchanges, for example, but last week opened a private exchange, admitting that it needed to “evolve” its strategy. In September, USA Today attempted to kick networks and exchanges off its site completely. One year later, DSPs say they’re seeing “millions of opportunities” to bid on its inventory every day.

That’s because when it comes to programmatic selling, the horse has left the stable. Agencies say they’re desperate to buy more of their media programmatically. They’re becoming less interested in the messy process of dealing with salespeople and faxing insertion orders, and want technology to do the heavy lifting.

If publishers want a piece of advertisers’ display budgets, they have little choice but to play ball.