‘It’s rocket science’: How Spil Games uses header bidding globally

Dutch publishers aren’t yet big users of header bidding — the technique that lets advertisers bid simultaneously on a media owner’s inventory. But there are some, like games publisher Spil Games, which has tackled the new tech head-on across its 31 casual gaming sites. And the last six months have been a real baptism by fire for the company.

Header bidding has emerged as a popular technique for publishers because it helps lift programmatic ad yields and reduces reliance on the more typical (and at times inefficient) waterfall technique. Spil Games director of online advertising Juuso Alho said the company used to lose up to 40 percent of impressions due to inefficient waterfall methods when trading inventory. And yet, he added, header bidding is stubbornly difficult to implement, despite all the promises of efficiency attached to automated selling.

Anyone who expects header bidding to be a plug and play solution, which is how it’s often pitched, is dreaming, said Alho. “It’s been a painful process,” he said at Digiday’s Publishing summit in Nice last week.

And yet it has been worth the effort, he added. Yields have risen at different rates across each of the different markets in which Spil has a presence: U.S., Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Latin America, Turkey and Russia. In some cases, there has been less uplift than others. In Germany, for example, yields have risen by as much as 25 percent, in Italy 20 percent, 10 percent in both the U.S. and U.K., and in Spain, Austria and Switzerland, 4 percent at certain periods over the last few months, according to Spil Games.

Here’s what it has learned:

Vendor politics
There are still some big drawbacks to the tech. Chief among them is the politics among the vendors themselves. The latest craze in header bidding is the wrapper tag, which lets publishers pull in multiple demand-side partners to its inventory. This results in more buyers and, therefore, greater bid density. But given that wrapper tags tend to be proprietary to the vendors, none of them are keen on having their header-bidding solution plugged in to a rival firm’s wrapper tag.

“We’ve faced lot of drawbacks because not all players want to work with others. So we can’t yet choose the technology that fits our needs, because we can’t get the partners to work together,” said Alho. “It’s still a hack in the sense that it’s not a standard. … We need a market that is open.”

It’s all about the people
Spil Games has undergone a radical business-model change in the last four years, ditching direct sales and going all in on programmatic, which now accounts for 90 percent of its revenue (70 percent of revenue is from advertising, the rest from in-app mobile purchases). That involved some serious staff downsizing: going from 60 people to 10 people in the last four years. Today, the company claims 100 million monthly users across its gaming sites, which total 3.5 billion global impressions across display and video.

A common challenge for publishers in recent years has been developing team skill sets to cope with the boom in programmatic trading. And header bidding magnifies the need for more in-house specialists, according to Alho. “It is rocket science, no question,” he said. “We’ve now hired a yield manager to look after it specifically, but it’s something that requires more people, not less, and a specific skills set.”

International roll-out is tough
Most of the laborious leg work is in the set-up phase. Once the tech is in place, rolling it out to different countries is pretty easy. But the devil is in the details, especially when you operate across 15 countries, like Spil Games does. “Some of the bidders didn’t want to participate in all domains or countries, so we had to create different bidder profiles for each domain.” That wasn’t too bad once it found the right vendor that could do this.

“The hard part comes in the operational overhead this brings,” added Alho. Getting a unified view of the pricing in each country, with few resources, is tough. Managing floor prices, bidder management, monitoring and reporting is all time-consuming and complicated, and even harder with scant resources, he added.

Image: Courtesy of Countryfile.


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