Digiday Research: Publishers lag in understanding header bidding

This research is based on unique data collected from our proprietary audience of publisher, agency, brand and tech insiders. It’s available to Digiday+ members. More from the series →

At the Digiday Hot Topic UK: Data-Driven Publishing event last November in London, we sat down with over 20 publisher executives from major media companies across the country to understand their knowledge of emerging technologies in the advertising world. Check out our earlier research on whether Facebook’s algorithm change will help or hurt publishers here. Learn more about our upcoming events here.

Top findings:

  • Only 22 percent of respondents think they have a perfect understanding of how first- and second-price auctions work.
  • Only 6 percent think the publishing industry has at least a “solid” understanding of first- and second-price auctions.
  • Sixty-seven percent think they have a better personal understanding than their industry does of first- and second-price auctions.

Publishers such as LittleThings, Prisa and MailOnline have adopted header bidding or server-side bidding in search of higher ad revenue. According to a report from ServerBid, 73 percent of the top 1,000 Alexa sites that sell ads programmatically conduct header bidding. But even as header bidding becomes ubiquitous among major publishers, few publishing executives understand it.

Only 22 percent of publishing executives in Digiday’s survey claimed to have a perfect understanding of how first- and second-price auctions work. Ninety-four percent said they had at least some understanding, while only 6 percent said they had no understanding. Publisher executives thought less highly of their industry as a whole. While 51 percent thought their personal knowledge was either solid or perfect, only 6 percent thought their industry had solid knowledge. No one thought their industry had perfect knowledge.

Most publishers are understandably only focused on content rather than building internal ad tech. Freestar, an agency that helps publishers monetize their ad inventory, has over 30 people dedicated to that task, whereas most publishers have only a small team of a few people, if not just one person, focused on monetizing ad inventory. These companies lack the resources and time to commit to understanding header bidding.

“At the end of the day, publishers aren’t ad tech companies,” said Christopher Stark, co-founder of Freestar. “Most of [the executives] are more worried about strategy around content than auction economics. [Header bidding] is deep, nerdy shit that executives don’t want to know and take the time to understand.”

Even if executives wanted to learn or people in the weeds actually responsible for figuring heading bidding out, there’s a serious lack of informational resources. “I don’t think there’s really anything out there and that’s part of the problem. Nothing out there gets someone anywhere close enough to be current,” said Stark. For those curious he offers a 2400 member Slack channel born out of a Reddit group focused on solving questions around ad operations as one of the best places a person can go.”


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