‘It’s not a panacea’: Inside Meredith’s multifaceted header bidding strategy

Meredith’s programmatic strategy illustrates how the methods of selling online advertising aren’t mutually exclusive.

Meredith — the parent company of lifestyle and food brands like Martha Stewart Living and Better Homes and Gardens — uses waterfalling, on-page header bidding and server-to-server connections to sell its display inventory. Meredith also moves bidders in and out of these various channels depending on how they affect latency and revenue.

“Header bidding is not a panacea,” said Chip Schenck, vp of data and programmatic solutions at Meredith. “It’s just one of the ways for demand to access the inventory.”

The methods publishers use to sell programmatic inventory have changed quickly in the past few years. Waterfalling let publishers move inventory from one market to the next, but it was inefficient at driving revenue. Header bidding — where publishers could simultaneously offer inventory to multiple exchanges before making calls to their ad servers — increased yield, but slowed down page loads. So along came server-to-server connections, which can improve latency, but is in its infancy and not yet scalable for most publishers.

As for how much of its programmatic inventory Meredith sells through each of these methods, Schenck said that the percentages are in constant flux since bidders get moved around and Meredith tweaks the line-item priorities in its ad server to benefit its largest and most loyal advertisers. For example, a preferred advertiser in a private marketplace deal bidding $12 per CPM can be put on par with advertisers bidding $20 per CPM in the open exchange.

The biggest advertising partners in PMP deals get the highest priority in Meredith’s ad server. After that, it’s a mix of on-page and server-side header bidders. The inventory that’s left over from those auctions funnels down to waterfalling markets, which publishers use to backfill the rest of their inventory. Meredith uses two server-to-server vendors, which Schenck wouldn’t name, and it generally has at least four exchanges bidding on page, although that number fluctuates.

Most header-bidding articles are about how the linear progression of publishers moving SSPs and exchanges from the ad-server waterfall to on-page bidding to server-to-server connections. But Meredith also moves bidders in the reverse direction, say when someone’s tag is slowing down a page.

Aside from moving slow or under-performing vendors from on-page to the waterfall, vendors in server-to-server connections are also prone to getting shifted around, particularly if they have trouble matching users IDs.

A downside of server-to-server connections is that it is tougher for the SSPs and DSPs to match their user IDs. With on-page header bidding, each SSP has access to the user’s browser, which means they gather and use their own matching data to sync with the DSP’s matching data.

But with server-to-server connections — where one vendor aggregates the bids from all the other vendors in a cloud-based product — only the vendor collecting the bids has access to the user’s browser, which means the other vendors have to sync their data to the aggregator’s data. This additional step can result in lower match rates, and it is one of the reasons why some publishers are hesitant to adopt server-side bidding.

While server-side bidding has several hurdles to overcome before it gains mass adoption, Schenck believes that the industry is headed in that direction. But even if the industry’s methods of selling inventory change, the goal of publishers won’t.

Schenck said: “It is always a question of balancing demand and user experience, with user experience being the priority.”

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