‘A lot of it is taped together’: Confessions of an ad tech software engineer

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Ad tech companies constantly tout their innovation bona fides, but for the latest in our anonymous Confessions series, we talked to an ad tech software developer who doesn’t buy the hype. Here are the excerpts, edited for clarity.

What do you think people get most wrong about ad tech?
People act like the technology is always innovative. Something that is universal in ad tech, which is strange because it is named ad TECH, is that a lot of it is not that great. A lot of these companies are just copycats, aside from the major ones. If you look at performance numbers, they are all pretty much static. You can’t even buy a viewable campaign yet on any of the major exchanges. You can only do it on private deals, and a whole bunch of requirements have to be in place. You can’t just go to an exchange and say, “I want to buy this.” So where is this innovation?

Can you give me some more examples of what else is “not that great”?
Real-time bidding is still slow. It still takes three megabytes of JavaScript to put a basic image on a page. If ad tech were so amazing, we wouldn’t have all of these problems and the performance, attribution and retargeting would be a lot better. I can say from first-hand experience that a lot of it is taped together stuff and nowhere near the sophistication that’s talked about.

Wouldn’t more people catch on if the services were so banal?
It is really easy to put up a website and mention “algorithms,” “machine learning” and a bunch of buzzwords. Nobody knows how that works. You can’t actually look into it, it is all just black boxes. But underneath, there is no real special sauce for a lot of these companies. You look at the Lumascape, 90 percent of these companies are copycats using the same technology. Technology is actually really hard to build and expensive. It’s not easy and cheap and something you can spin up in six months. When all these companies come out and say, “Hey we can do it too, we’re special,” it’s not real, it just doesn’t make sense.

But the reported revenues of many of these companies is quite high.
Revenues in this industry are very misleading. If you have a million dollar run rate, you only keep like 10 percent. All of the spend that goes through these platforms can be misleading, and nobody really knows how to evaluate this technology.

Is it all just marketing bullshit?
Yes. That is all it is. When they use terms like native, video, mobile, they aren’t comparable terms. Mobile is a type of device. Native is a type of execution. Video is a type of asset, and you can use video in any format. Why are you using these words? They don’t make sense. When people use them it is just marketing and I feel like people don’t know it.

You mentioned the “major” companies are actually being innovative. What do they do that smaller players don’t?
Facebook and Google are doing so well because they offer you everything you need for their networks. But nobody has done that for the web. And I don’t know why. I need other vendors to actually do anything interesting. Other than buying basic targeted ads and basic display banners, you need someone else to help you even on AppNexus and Rubicon. And I’m like, “Why can’t you, with a thousand employees, take that functionality and build it in already? What’s stopping you? What are you waiting for?” I don’t get it.


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