A year on, The Trade Desk’s Open Path is moving toward its goals, but challenges persist

It was during the first week of January when a senior exec from The Trade Desk asked publishers and ad tech vendors in a private WhatsApp group to abide by Chatham House Rules — nothing attributed by name, title or company. They wanted to be candid with everyone there. 

What followed was their own 291-word defense of OpenPath, the ad tech vendor’s plan to let advertisers bid directly on publisher inventory without the typical involvement of supply-side platforms (SSPs). The Trade Desk exec knew all too well that their peers weren’t entirely convinced. Publishers worried OpenPath would suck money out of the market. SSPs suspected this would put pressure on their margins at best, and disintermediate them at worst. The exec wanted to address these concerns.

The defense tried to assure their audience that OpenPath isn’t an SSP in disguise. They insisted it wouldn’t undermine existing deals between publishers and other SSPs. They even suggested that OpenPath could make publishers more money. 

“It’s not an SSP, it’s a direct integration to pubs alongside SSPs,” said the exec in the group. “To echo a point above, SSPs aren’t just pipes, but OpenPath is.”

The rhetoric wanted to leave those publishers in no doubt that OpenPath would help solve their problems, not add to them. It’s debatable whether it had the desired effect. 

One half of the OpenPath address was applauded by two thumbs up emojis, while the other had just one, according to a picture of the chat group taken shortly after the message was sent and shared with Digiday. 

The message — and the varied, subsequent reaction to it — are a microcosm of OpenPath’s progress and The Trade Desk’s pitch to publishers, some of whom remain not entirely convinced.

Publishers are using it, to be clear. There are around 4,000 domains now actively selling impressions to advertisers through OpenPath, according to ad tech tracker Sincera. It’s not the sort of scale that would normally set pulses racing. Not when compared to the amount of domains sold by more traditional programmatic marketplaces (like PubMatic or Openx). However, OpenPath has no intention of achieving that scale.

“We’re really happy with the progress of OpenPath over the last year, during which time we’ve got to the point where we have a clean baseline for supply,” said Will Doherty, vp of inventory development at The Trade Desk. We have a very short supply chain, between us and the publisher. And the telemetry that that has given us has been accretive across a number of dimensions.”

In layman’s terms, OpenPath is doing just fine. It’s now a way for marketers to buy programmatic ads directly from marquee brands like A+E Networks and Encyclopedia Britannica as well as from some of the most visited sites around via publisher holding companies like Cafe Media. 

And there are more to come — over 3,500 in fact. That’s the number of publishers who have set up the OpenPath connections to The Trade Desk but have yet to see it turned on, according to Sincera. If The Trade Desk did this, they’d double the amount of active domains instantly.

So what happens to OpenPath over the next 12 months? Like Frank Sinatra’s hit, for now, the best is yet to come. And that’s probably as good an outcome as The Trade Desk could’ve hoped for given the odd bump or two up to this point. 

When it launched OpenPath, the company’s line that this would be a programmatic pipe to new money for publishers got clouded by the fear that it would give The Trade Desk even more influence over the flow of ad dollars

And even when publishers gave OpenPath the benefit of the doubt, the reporting features weren’t quite ready to ratify that decision. That’s only once they had finally connected to OpenPath. It took longer than expected to get some of those links up and running, according to three ad execs with knowledge of the process.

Once they managed to get through all of this, publishers could breathe a sigh of relief. The money they’ve been making from OpenPath hasn’t come at the expense of the most valuable deals they already have with other SSPs. Whatever reservations they may have had to the contrary are on the backburner. For now at least, it’s full steam ahead. 

“OpenPath has been successful from our perspective,” said Eric Hochberger, CEO of Mediavine. “We’ve seen net revenue gains as a result of this integration. It’s a partnership that has exceeded my expectations.”

The same goes for Freestar. The ad management firm, which represents hundreds of publishers across various verticals, was one of the earlier ones The Trade Desk struck a deal with for OpenPath. So far it seems to have been a win-win: The Trade Desk got direct access to swathes of quality inventory for its advertisers, while Freestar’s publishers got an incremental revenue stream.

“OpenPath is working very well for us, it’s adding incrementality to our business and we’re not seeing it pull money away from other SSPs we work with,” said Kurt Donnell, president and CEO of Freestar. “It’s been very positive for us.” 

Not every publisher would agree. Some of them felt their arms were twisted into doing these deals in the first place. To them, it was as if they never really had a say in the matter.

“There was a subtext to this offer,” said one of the publisher execs who spoke to Digiday on condition of anonymity over concerns their comments would jeopardize its commercial relationship with The Trade Desk. “It wasn’t going to be one of those ones we could chew over for too long. No, The Trade Desk was like ‘if you don’t get on the boat now then you may not get another chance.’”

Unsurprisingly, the ad tech vendor has a different take on those meetings.

“Feedback like this doesn’t track with any of the conversations I’ve had about OpenPath,” said Doherty. “It’s actually not in my best [interest] to try to create any sort of priority or influence there because our backlog is bigger than we have time to work through in terms of the amount of publishers trying to get into the programme.”

And yet there’s at least one other OpenPath publisher who felt The Trade Desk did exactly that. The execs there worried that if they had spurned The Trade Desk’s advances then they’d also be saying bye to the ad dollars it brought them. “It definitely felt like that when OpenPath was pitched to us,” said the exec.

Imagine the scenario: The Trade Desk rocks up to a publisher and makes it clear that it’s going to do all it can to ensure OpenPath is a success. A statement of this magnitude is going to pique the interest of even the most risk averse publishers. But it also leaves a lot to the imagination. 

“When it comes to how The Trade Desk buys inventory from publishers there are five efficient paths it chooses, and OpenPath is one of them,” said one executive who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their deal with the ad tech vendor. “It magically passes their own tests for what is an efficient path every month.”

Clearly, this exec thinks it’s a little suspicious that OpenPath has become one of the most efficient ways The Trade Desk buys impressions from publishers after just a few months. 

But this is arguably more ruthless than nefarious. Ruthless because all The Trade Desk cares about is that it can buy inventory at a price it deems fair. Any ad tech partner that can’t meet those expectations gets dropped. The chances of that happening to OpenPath are slim to none. Not only does it have a low take rate, it also has a team making the necessary adjustments needed to ensure that when an advertiser bids $1 CPM via OpenPath the chances of the winning are more than they are when they make that same bid elsewhere. That’s the bit that chaffs with the exec. It’s a lot easier to win those bids when the company knows the ranking factors and no one else does. 

“Conversations like this have a way of being conflated because they can be fairly nuanced even to the most seasoned of ad tech folk,” said Doherty. “A lot of the efforts that we undertake with supply-path optimization is to make sure that budgets are going to real publishers with real audiences who invest in real content, and then make sure that we can sufficiently invest in those publishers through the right paths. Not just all paths.”

It’s a valid point. Nevertheless, it can’t detract from the fact that The Trade Desk hasn’t done enough to assuage all those concerns. 

For all the money OpenPath is making publishers, some of them can’t quite shake the feeling that nothing good comes without sacrifice. And for good reason. They worry that eventually OpenPath will help The Trade Desk aggregate even more buying power than it already has. That’s going to give the ad tech vendor quite a bit of leverage down the road. Whenever this happens the chances are it won’t be a net win for publishers. It never is. 

“We’re trying to cut out the middleman and it looks like that’s kind of what The Trade Desk is doing, is cutting out the middleman by going directly to the source,” said a third media executive, who is currently gearing up to use Open Path, on condition of anonymity. “So I’m hoping this drums up additional incremental revenue for us through their integration. If it doesn’t, we’ll revisit those conversations.”

So for now at least — publishers seem to view Open Path as a marriage of convenience over a perfect match.

“The Trade Desk’s OpenPath is still very much an experiment; it’s not clear if overall yield will be hurt by removing their demand from other SSPs (should they stop spending there in favor of the OpenPath),” said Justin Wohl, chief revenue officer at Salon. “That said, I’m still wanting to try it and find out.”

Editor’s note. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Disney was one of the publishers using Open Path. It has been updated accordingly. 

https://digiday.com/?p=491974

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