The rise of the publisher trading desk

Major publishers have accepted that programmatic advertising is here to stay, and most now sell significant portions of their ad space that way. Now a handful are taking their ad tech experiments a step further, using it to buy inventory from third-party sites and exchanges, repackage it and sell to their advertiser clients at a premium.

Condé Nast, the Washington Post and the Guardian have all launched publisher trading desks in the past year. The idea is for those units to take information gleaned from owned and operated properties, and to use it to target users elsewhere on the Web on behalf of clients. An advertiser may wish to reach a specific publisher’s audience, for example, but care little if it actually does so on that publisher’s sites. That’s the opportunity publishers are hoping to exploit.

“We use our first-party data to target ads both across our own sites, and across the outside market. It’s working very well,” said Alanna Gombert, general manager of Condé Nast’s CatalystDesk programmatic division. “We use our own buying platforms and do our own buying,” she added.

U.K.-based Guardian News and Media is taking a similar approach with the Response+ trading desk it quietly opened in October. The desk takes its data and buy ads served to “virtually the entire U.K. Internet population” through its exchange integrations, the company claims, though it’s also selling the solution in the U.S.

The Washington Post’s WP+ program promises similar.

In many ways, these trading desks are an evolution of the audience extension networks some major publishers already operate, or at least used to. Condé Nast, for example, has been buying media on third-party sites on behalf of clients for years, although agency clients haven’t always been happy with the sites it partners with.

Forbes used to aggregate inventory from affiliate sites into its Forbes Audience Network, and various other major media brands cobbled together similar networks in 2008 and 2009.

But the publisher trading desk model is more about data than inventory. It’s primarily an attempt by publishers to better control and monetize their audience information, and to wrestle back control from the ad middlemen and audience brokers than many publishers feel are eating into their ad revenues.

Steve Stup, ad sales head at the Washington Post, said the WP+’s key proposition is access to its “premium data,” for example. Meanwhile the Guardian’s Response+ sales material emphasizes its “unique datasets” and argues “other platforms are heavily reliant on limited third-party datasets from the same suppliers meaning they are bidding on the same users, pushing up price and ultimately undermining ROI.”

It’s too early to tell if the approach will prove lucrative, or if agencies and advertisers will feel comfortable trusting a publisher with their media dollars versus an established ad network or a DSP.

It’s clear, however, that publishers are now embracing ad tech more than ever and looking for ways to turn what many have perceived as a threat to their business models into something that can help unlock new revenue streams instead.