Want to start a heated discussion in the online advertising space? Ask a group of people to finish this sentence: "Ad networks are [fill in the blank]."
That's because depending on whom you're talking to, they're the saviors of the internet ad industry, reaggregating the billions of impressions across millions of sites so it's easier for agencies and advertisers to spend more money online and allowing innumerable niche-content sites to bloom. Or they're the scourge of the online ecosystem, bottom feeders that operate in brand-dangerous environments and drive down pricing.
In reality, ad networks are many things; the diversity among them is astounding. Some excel in sophisticated targeting and algorithms that continually optimize for better responses. Others are mass, direct-response-based plays that may not get the highest click-through rates but are cheap and efficient. And still others are making a play for brand dollars, carefully monitoring the sites they sell and genuinely trying to be publisher partners.
In this issue, we hope to break down the increasingly complex online advertising-network and -exchange ecosystem, looking at how the players operate, what innovations are on the horizon and where entrants are starting to find success.
Take the agencies, which until recently had been solely buyers of online ads, either directly from publishers or via networks or exchanges. Today, agencies and holding companies are playing in a game normally reserved for sellers, either creating their own networks (an ad network for ad networks, as one exec described it to me) or exchanges, which collect impressions, apply a layer of targeting and offer those impressions to clients. Rich Karpinski explores this world with a look at the reasons for these businesses and the offerings from several holding companies and agency groups.
Meanwhile, a whole new lot of companies have cropped up to help the publisher side dole out impressions and maximize yield. These companies -- we like to call them "publisher helpers" -- have names like Rubicon Project and AdMeld and are busy trying to help sites maximize revenue by understanding the value of their inventory.
Then there's also the trend of separating data from impressions -- and selling those data separately to marketers, networks and publishers via a "data exchange." These exchanges can be invaluable to online ad sellers, helping them pair better intelligence with the inventory, but what do they mean for publishers? And what's more, will this emerging market be hindered by privacy concerns before it really gets started?
We know this guide won't give you all the answers to a massive and rapidly changing industry. We encourage you to check in with us frequently at AdAge.com/digital. But we hope it provides the background to know what questions to ask and which points are the valid ones in your next discussion about the ad network and exchange ecosystem.
Enjoy -- and please give us your feedback.