The cases for and against The Trade Desk’s Top 100 List 

Everyone’s mad at independent ad tech’s heavyweight, The Trade Desk. But let’s be honest, it’s par for the course. When you’re a giant in the industry, ruffling feathers left and right is just another day at the office.

That’s why the latest uproar over The Trade Desk’s list of the top 100 sites it buys from wasn’t surprising. If anything, it blurted out the obvious: The Trade Desk is so big it makes everyone else squirm.

Anything it does is going to attract a lot of scrutiny. Granted, some of this heat is due to the ad tech vendor’s own moves, but a lot of it is just part and parcel of being the biggest fish in the pond.

Here are the cases for and against those frustrations.

The case for the The Trade Desk

Let’s get this out of the way now: Yes, The Trade Desk is flexing its muscles, capitalizing on its clout in online advertising. Publishers, in particular, are feeling the heat more than others right now, worried that the list is just another sign of how much control The Trade Desk has over ad dollars.

But that doesn’t mean the ad tech giant shouldn’t be acting this way. A lot of their moves come from smart strategic decisions, not some sinister agenda. This is one of those times. It’s The Trade Desk doing what it believes is best for its advertisers. 

And when it comes to the list, here’s what that means: as publishers focus on quality inventory and prepare for the end of cookies, they face a big choice. Should they work with ad tech companies or try to take back control themselves? Smaller publishers will probably choose to work with ad tech because they don’t have many alternatives. 

For them, it’s either collaborating to increase their programmatic demand and survive a bit longer, or risk going out of business quickly. Some larger publishers will also cooperate, but the top-tier ones will likely try to take back control, aiming to be more like Google and Amazon instead of relying on ad tech. Meanwhile, The Trade Desk is working hard to stop these barriers from being built, benefiting their customers (the marketers) and ensuring its own future.

The list, unified ID 2.0, OpenPath, OpenPass and other initiatives all service this purpose in some way. 

Admittedly, that’s a bitter pill for many publishers who rely on them for revenue. But that’s likely because they bought into the marketing hype, seeing The Trade Desk as a crusader for an idealistic open internet, and overlooked everything else it was doing.

And yet, everything it has done up until now suggests the contrary. That’s not to say it’s against publishers. On the contrary, the ad tech vendor has continually tried to thread a seemingly impossible needle —ensuring advertisers can buy the best of everything online outside the walled gardens while making sure media owners get their fair share of the spoils. But that’s a hard circle to square. These objectives are inherently difficult to reconcile. 

If more people had understood this reality, the reaction to the list might have been more accepting rather than critical. They might have even viewed it as a positive step. Think about it: the list serves as a starting point for a deeper, more nuanced discussion about what advertisers should prioritize when buying quality media based on consent and first-party data — principles that publishers have been advocating for years. In some cases, like with publisher alliances, they’ve even made progress. However, these efforts often lack exclusivity and scarcity, as the same inventory is sold through many other channels at the same time. The Trade Desk wants to change that.

Yes, this poses a huge risk for media owners, but it’s one they’ve contributed to. As Alessandro De Zanche, founder of media consultancy ADZ Strategies, explained, “From The Trade Desk’s point of view, it is a strategically brilliant move, and one cannot blame them for filling a vacuum left by media owners’ missed opportunities.”

The case against the The Trade Desk

It boils down to how The Trade Desk is flexing its muscles — and maybe more crucially, why.

Certain sources told Digiday that the furor among some amounted to an overreaction. Still, others alluded to how premium media outlets not included in the report may indicate a wider unease among media owners with The Trade Desk.  

“On the surface, they are making it easy it easy to buy across a highly curated list of premium domains that enables more dollars to flow to quality content,” said Paul Silver, president of MiQ. 

“There’s some meaningful-sized publishers out there that weren’t on the list, and you, sort of, wonder why that might be… are there conflicts of interest if those publishers have their own ad tech stack?”

Digiday sources pointed to notable omissions from the debut report, in which The Trade Desk purports to list the “leading 500 sellers”… “as well as thousands of additional premium destinations valued by top brands.” 

For example, Netflix is mentioned only twice in passing in The Trade Desk’s opening report – the streaming service is not included in the top 100 list. Other notable ommissions include MSN, and others voiced curiosity as to the methodology used to rank said media owners.  

MiQ’s Silver added, “I’d just question how, long-term, buyers are able to maintain control over The Trade Desk’s control over SPO-throttling, ensuring they have maximum control over how much [ad spend] flows into these lists.”  

To many folks caught up in its whirlwind, it feels like they’ve been dragged along without a say. Sure, they know this is just the way things go with industry giants. But it’s tough to see the bright side, especially given how hard The Trade Desk has tried to paint itself as the good guy.

It’s even tougher for those who never bought into the hype. They saw its loud criticism of the big platforms as a smokescreen for a harsh truth: The Trade Desk knows those platforms aren’t going anywhere. It doesn’t want to replace them; it wants to dominate any ad spend they don’t. The list is just the latest move in that game, aiming to pull the best of the internet outside the biggest walled gardens, from The Atlantic and Hulu to Mediaset’s TV app Mitele and French newspaper La Figaro, onto its own turf.

And here’s the crux of the issue: when The Trade Desk says “best,” it really means “authenticated” — places that make users verify their identity through a secure process (like an email) — and many premium publishers don’t think they can pull that off. Gathering those emails means dealing with user reluctance, technical debt and regulatory headaches. These hurdles make it hard for publishers to get emails. And if they can’t get enough of them, they risk missing out on ad dollars from the biggest source of programmatic ad spending outside the walled gardens: The Trade Desk. Why? Because the ad tech vendor needs those emails to spend those dollars on behalf of its clients without relying on third-party cookies.

Call it conditional generosity.

And this isn’t a one-time thing. There have been plenty of these instances over the last few years. Here are a few: 

The Trade Desk consolidates supply paths and funnels ad dollars into fewer parts of the web. Advertisers are thrilled because they get more efficient access (and prices) to ad inventory. Ad tech vendors, not so much, because it snatches business away from undifferentiated ad exchanges and supply-side platforms. Transactional benevolence at its finest.

It was the same story when The Trade Desk began building publisher direct integrations through OpenPath. Advertisers got a direct path to premium inventory. But in doing so, it also meant The Trade Desk could potentially cut out other ad tech vendors. Relentless optimization in action.

That message came through loud and clear when The Trade Desk decided to give advertisers access to ad inventory at potentially lower prices by bidding below the minimum prices set by publishers and supply-side platforms. That was just great for marketers, who got transparency into what The Trade Desk believed was the true value of impressions — a secret publishers had been keeping. On the flipside, it potentially stripped control and yield from publishers who could no longer effectively set and enforce their own commercial strategies for their ad inventory.

In other words, while The Trade Desk paints itself as the champion of advertisers, publishers and the open internet, some of its power plays and value extraction maneuvers can be seen as coming at the expense of other ad tech players and intermediaries. How generous of them.

https://digiday.com/?p=546792

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