The big agency holding groups are cutting out their demand-side platforms and going straight to supply-side platforms and publishers to find out how programmatic ads are really sold.

When programmatic advertising is run as a managed service by a DSP, not only is there another intermediary between the agency and the publisher; there’s another fee the agency doesn’t receive. Going directly to SSPs can cut cost pressures on agencies wishing to operate in a two-sided marketplace: That way the agencies can exert more control over how impressions are sold and bought — by negotiating better terms, securing more favorable pricing and finding pockets of undervalued inventory with SSPs.

This is the latest iteration of supply-path optimization whereby agencies have gone beyond simply finding the best way to obtain the impressions they want. Agencies are now starting to limit the number of resold, pricey impressions they buy in favor of finding lower-fee, direct routes to those same impressions.

For that degree of curation to work, media buyers realized they had cut the number of SSPs they buy impressions from. That’s led to a paring down of the number of SSPs. Omnicom Media Group buys display and video impressions from 10 SSPs in the U.S. (The total is 15 when other formats like native, audio and outdoor advertising are included.)

Meanwhile, Havas has gone from buying impressions from 42 SSPs in the U.S. last year to just seven now; the agency plans to set up contractual relationships with four of them in the coming months. In the same market, Engine’s digital marketplace EMX buys most of its impressions through four SSPs, including its own. Similarly, GroupM has switched off 55% of the SSPs it bought impressions from globally over the last three years to focus on fewer partnerships. And this year Dentsu cut the number SSPs on its list to the “single digits,” said David Newman, managing partner for programmatic at Dentsu Aegis U.K. and Ireland.

“We have seen that reducing the number of exchange partners hasn’t had an impact on scale or performance and has allowed us greater control over where and how we are buying,” Newman said.

Today agency groups like Omnicom and Havas are increasingly instructing certain SSPs to sell them specific impressions. Without direct relationships with SSPs, agencies can’t make those demands since DSPs traditionally have not offered that degree of curation. In some cases, the agencies are bypassing their DSPs to go straight to SSPs so as to understand how to find the best impressions at the fairest price. In turn, SSPs are being asked to let the agencies use their platforms to operate customized marketplaces and curated ad exchanges.

“We’re seeing a lot more RFPs from the holding companies asking us to map out how we would build a custom marketplace, a custom header tag or their own curated exchange and then outline how much would it cost, how long would it take to develop and how we would run them,” said Kyle Dozeman, vp of advertiser solutions at SSP PubMatic.

These partnerships allow agencies to make smarter spending decisions and subsequently make more money, said Dozeman. By arranging for SSPs to share data on their auctions, traders can find cheaper impressions that aren’t being contested by rivals, for example, he said.

Omnicom Media Group has been building these relationships since publishers first started running multiple auctions for the same impression four years ago. Back then, working directly with those ad tech vendors was a long and arduous process that involved crude tactics like shutting down or opening up entire SSPs to understand how the inventory was sourced. Making such decisions is a lot easier now that SSPs and publishers are more open to sharing all the sensitive data relevant to a single impression such as cookie IDs and viewability levels. Furthermore, the widespread adoption of standards like sellers.jsons has granted traders unprecedented insight into all the ways an impression travels from the publisher to the advertiser.

“We’re working with SSPs to change the actual inventory they send us in the bid request to our buying platforms,” said Ryan Eusanio, director of programmatic at Omnicom Media Group.

The agency’s traders are now passing to the SSPs whitelists of sites that they will exclusively buy impressions from, effectively having direct access to the ad tech vendor’s platform, Eusanio said.

GroupM has made similar moves. The agency network is working with a handful of SSPs in places like the U.K. and the Netherlands to curate and manage marketplaces of premium publishers. Those marketplaces allow GroupM to find and then manage quality impressions, whether by allowing traders to switch in or switch out SSPs or letting them sell all their deals in one place.

“We want to understand how the SSPs are measuring the quality of impressions coming into their platform,” said Jack Smith, chief product officer at GroupM. Armed with that information, the group’s traders can articulate to publishers why it makes more sense to sell more of their impressions via the agency’s approved set of SSPs. “We’re not telling publishers that they shouldn’t work with an SSP; we’re just talking through the economics of working with specific ones,” he said.

Sometimes the agencies are financially compensated for their relationships with SSPs. PubMatic lowers its fees the more money Goodway Group spends through its platform, for example.

Publishers remain unconvinced, however, by the commercial rewards of facilitating such deals. Their fear: If they start to trim the number of SSPs that sell their impressions, they won’t look as big to the DSPs and could subsequently miss out on programmatic dollars.

“Supply-path optimization isn’t doing anything for us,” said the digital chief of a European publisher who requested to remain unnamed. “It feels like it’s all theory and isn’t really operational yet. I’d rather have direct DSP integrations so that we can skip out of most of the supply chain altogether.”

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