The curation of programmatic marketplaces gathers pace across advertising – except with advertisers

“Curation” is table stakes for many in digital advertising — except among advertisers.

They continue to buy many of their programmatic ads from one, all-encompassing (often opaque) programmatic marketplace.

That’s despite the fact that they don’t necessarily have to.

Not when there are a myriad of ways to take a stab at cherry picking the best inventory out there these days. 

Among them are the emergence of preferred marketplaces, the advent of supply-path optimisation, or even the emergence of ad tech vendors refusing to buy impressions from certain, seemingly shady programmatic marketplaces, for that matter.

The cumulative effect of all these efforts should’ve been a programmatic marketplace increasingly split across smaller supply chains that give marketers scaled, focused access to trusted programmatic publishers. The reality is it’s still pending.

“There is still a large amount of open marketplace activity going on and some of that is to do with programmatic sophistication. Simply put, there is still a lot of margin to be made in the open marketplace from advertisers who don’t know or care about the supply they buy,” said Dan Larden, who runs the U.K. region of media consultancy TPA Digital.

Chalk this up to a bunch of reasons, some more rational (curated costs more) than others (an unwillingness to be accountable). All of them, however, can be traced back to the fact that advertisers still aren’t overly familiar with all the intricacies of programmatic advertising.

Time and again, ad execs are saying the same thing. 

“We do see this conversation [about curated marketplaces] occurring, but many of our clients are still new to the world of programmatic, so while as a whole this will be an industry wide shift, in the medium term we believe there to be minor iterative changes in approach amongst our client set,” said Will Jennings, head of paid media at performance agency ROAST. 

Better to stick to the status quo, goes the thinking, than break the habit of a lifetime — even if it’s arguably for the best. 

“This is the legacy of what was once an emerging technology that had multiple players dictating the way it was bought and sold — all of the issues that come with this sort of growth are compounded by the fact that there are still many marketers who don’t necessarily understand what the technology behind programmatic actually offers,” said Patrick Shepherd, head of programmatic at media agency the7stars. 

Call it a status quo bias, and it continues to define the overall ebb and flow of dollars around the market. 

“What we hear from media agencies is frustration that they’ve spent months figuring out ways to split the open auction into smaller, more specific pools of supply based on factors such as directness, consumer experience, content adjacency, and audience relevance,”  said Chris Kane, founder of programmatic consultancy Jounce Media. “But at the end of all that effort, hands-on-keyboard traders still push the great majority of spend through the open auction.”

What’s next

While concrete proof of this changing anytime soon is scarce, what little is available should provide food for thought.

Talk to any programmatic business these days, whether they’re a buyer or a seller, and they will offer up a spin on the same pitch: the outlook for advertising in large swathes of the open web isn’t particularly promising so this tech helps pin down the parts of it that are. 

This isn’t a new idea per se. Ad tech vendors and agencies have been trying to carve out the best parts of the open auction for ever and a day. But the way they’ve gone about it via private marketplaces hasn’t been very scalable. No deal where two parties — advertisers and publishers in this instance — get together to thrash out commercial terms ever is. 

What is scalable, though, is if ad tech vendors and agencies start splintering the entire open auction into a series of higher-quality versions. In fact, this is what’s happening (albeit slowly). 

There are agencies that are asking ad tech vendors to create tools that would let their clients buy impressions from what would essentially be their own version of the open marketplace — one bereft of the convoluted supply chains, and cheap, shady inventory that continues to overshadow some of the better aspects of programmatic advertising. 

Think of it like a series of marketplaces shaped by the agency’s own philosophical take on what curation is — underpinned by the data they have access to and the outcomes they’re trying to achieve for clients. 

“This concept of curated marketplaces has demand-side platforms, agencies and exchanges making broad decisions to winnow down the total universe of supply to a smaller higher-quality subset,” said Ratko Vidakovic, founder of ad tech consultancy AdProfs.

Media agencies, in particular, have been keen to get a foothold here. They just need help to do it, which is why most — if not all — of their attempts to bifurcate the open market are being done in partnership with supply-side platforms. The reasons for this are plentiful, but the short version goes like this: it’s a lot easier for the agencies to get these companies to do what they want. 

“It’s because the largest DSPs have contracts with a growing share of the media agency account teams so the ability for an agency to differentiate itself around programmatic is more challenging,” said a senior executive at an SSP involved in these sorts of deals. “Whereas at SSPs, at least the larger ones, there’s more willingness on our side to help them differentiate via devices and product development.”

And therein is the main reason why this shift toward curated marketplaces is finally gathering momentum (albeit slowly) after a few false starts. Nothing has an impact on the ebb and flow of ad dollars around the ad market like the buying power of the media agencies. 

Eventually, the time will come when advertisers will have to pay attention to the idea of a curated marketplace in programmatic.

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