‘An ad tech urban legend’: An oral history of how header bidding became digital advertising’s hottest buzzword
Fed up with how Google’s ad server favored its own exchange, over the past two years many publishers restructured their tech stacks to simultaneously offer inventory to multiple exchanges before making their ad calls. Since this approach has helped pubs drive revenue and dial back Google’s competitive advantage, it caught like wildfire. The strategy is widely known as header bidding, and it is the du jour topic at ad tech conferences.
Here is the story of how the buzzword came to be, from some of those who helped popularize it. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
The concept of header bidding wasn’t always called header bidding. For years, vendors pushed their own nomenclature.
Paul Bannister, co-founder, CafeMedia: There was a lot of confusion in the beginning about what to call it.
Emry Downinghall, vp of advertising, Chegg: Originally, it was called “tagless,” but that made little sense because there were still plenty of tags.
Erik Requidan, vp of programmatic strategy, Intermarkets: Imagine if tagless took off. How do you explain the mechanics around that?
Jason Fairchild, CRO, OpenX: We didn’t originally call it header bidding. We called it “bidder” because it was a product of ours. We also referred to this concept as “parallel auction” or “universal auction.”
Michael Grosinger, product manager, bRealTime: We had called it “dynamic bidding.”
Bannister: I have a spec doc from Criteo where it was called “real time advertising targeting,” but that was their brand name and had no generic naming. I have docs from Amazon where it is called “match buy,” but again, no real generic names.
The term ‘header bidding’ debuts
The names that vendors pushed eventually subsided. For some insiders, the term “header bidding” came to their attention a few years before it spread throughout the industry.
Chip Schenck, vp of programmatic, Meredith: I started hearing the term “header” in late 2014. As in: “We enable our SSP in the header so it can submit bids in advance of the ad call.” But that was only to describe the location.
Gabriel DeWitt, vp of product and technical operations, Index Exchange: I started calling it header bidding in 2014 — right from the beginning.
Scott Kolb, co-founder, Slader: I did a search in my email. Header bidding didn’t surface until 2015.
Jeff Rich, CEO, BrainyQuote: I’m pretty sure no one called it header bidding until around 2015.
Alanna Gombert, gm, IAB Tech Lab: I first heard the term “header bidding” about five years ago. But the conversation really came to the forefront about two years ago in the Tech Lab working groups. I think I went to my first panel on it about two and a half years ago.
Fairchild: It was like boiling a frog. The next thing we know, we are knee-deep in it, and it is called header bidding.
As seen in the Google Trends graph below, the phrase “header bidding” took off online in the summer of 2015. What was the catalyst for the surge in popularity? It depends on whom you ask.
DeWitt: Sometime in 2014, a header-bidding Slack channel started that publishers used to share insights. I give that Slack channel and AdMonsters events in 2015 credit for popularizing the term.
Requidan: There were a handful of us speaking on panels and with trade pubs, and we were unintentionally branding it.
Grosinger: There was a lot of press around it in the summer of 2015, and from there, publisher adoption and tech solutions around header bidding blew up.
Danny Khatib, CEO, Granite Media: I recall an AdExchanger article as being an important piece at the time in terms of consolidating thinking. You can see in the comments how some still referred to it as advanced bidding.
Bannister: I think that AdExchanger article made a difference. From all of the investor sessions I go to about programmatic, that article is the most cited. So I think it helped push header bidding as the standard name.
Jonathan Mendez, CEO, Yieldbot: The AdExchanger piece was the first article I recall that said header bidding in the title, and I think that was influential in getting people to adopt the name. Around that same time, I noticed that AdMonsters, Ad Ops Insider and Digiday started talking about header bidding.
The AdExchanger article
On June 18, 2015, AdExchanger published “The Rise Of ‘Header Bidding’ And The End Of The Publisher Waterfall,” which was the first trade article to mention header bidding. Header bidding was novel enough that it got its own scare quotes in the headline, and AdExchanger almost adopted another term.
Sarah Sluis, senior editor, AdExchanger: Our founder, John Ebbert, was the one who got the tip about this thing that people were then calling pre-bidding or tagless. He said it was something that was taking off and that we should write about it. He got the tip from someone else, but I am not 100 percent sure who told him about it.
Ben Kneen, publisher, Ad Ops Insider: I told John about it because I thought it would be a big deal, and they have a much bigger megaphone than me. I remember talking about it with him over breakfast, but I was probably not the only person who mentioned it to him.
Sluis: We had discussions about which term to use. I got a note from an editor that said, “I prefer pre-bidding, unless you have a reason for header bidding.” Pre-bidding and advance bidding were real contenders.
Ryan Joe, managing editor, AdExchanger: I wanted pre-bidding because it made more sense to me at the time since the bidding happened before the call to the ad server. But this was before I understood that it took place in the header. I ultimately deferred to Sarah [Sluis] because she did the heavy lifting and interviews.
Sluis: I specifically didn’t want to use a term that was exactly the same as a vendor’s. It was a matter of asking people which term they thought made most sense.
Prohaska: I can’t remember our exact conversation. But Sarah and I spent about an hour on the phone that day going over what this thing was. I threw out several terms and said something like, “Header bidding will stick better, I think,” and she went with it.
Sluis: Ad tech is known for confusing terminology. So to be able to use one term, even if it is not a perfect term, can help move conversations forward about adoption.
Prohaska: Having one term helped tech firms rally around one transaction type and integration, it helped sellers explain what it is and it helped buyers explain what they wanted to do.
Mendez: Figuring out what to call it certainly helped adoption, no doubt about it. Ad tech is already complex enough, let alone when you have three terms that mean the same thing. Common language is the key for any society to prosper, even in ad tech.
Who created the buzzword?
While it is clear that header bidding became standard ad tech jargon in 2015, the genesis of the term is harder to peg.
Sluis: Ad Ops Insider had one of the only articles about header bidding that I saw before I wrote my piece.
Kneen: I did not coin the term. It is hard to remember what I read before I wrote my first article about it. But I believe I saw the term in blogs from StudyBreak Media and Technorati. Sovrn might have had something on it too.
Bannister: I would say that Index [Exchange] and OpenX were leaders in standardizing the name.
Fairchild: It wasn’t us who came up with the term.
DeWitt: Nobody knows for sure who coined the term. It’s an ad tech urban legend.
Mendez: The important thing is that everyone knows what it means. Thank God it is not an acronym.
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