How real-time bidding works

The real-time bidding ecosystem is still fairly new, and for many in our industry, there are a lot of misconceptions about how all the different parts of the ecosystem fit together. I've had a lot of requests from folks in the industry to explain how RTB works, and how the different players in our space fit together.

The biggest concept to get your head around with real-time bidding is the concept of programmatic buying and selling. The idea here is to streamline the buying and selling process by removing humans from the transaction. Now this is a very important thing to understand: By "the transaction," I don't mean that buyers and sellers no longer interact, or that there's no role for sales in the equation. I simply mean that the act of booking the buy -- let's call it "order taking" -- is completely automated. Ultimately this is a good thing for sales teams, as it lets them focus on building the relationship and selling the buyer on the value of their publisher brands. It lets the seller step away from the order-taking process.

How real-time bidding works

Programmatic buying and selling is absolutely the future of this industry; it's just a question of how long that transition will take. The lower cost of sales for publishers and more efficient buying for media agencies absolutely will make up for any hit to average CPM. And many (myself included) believe that we'll actually see higher CPMs as a result of all this streamlining. Today most of the inventory that's available is remnant, and it's not the high-quality premium inventory currently handled by sales teams. Ultimately, all inventory will transact programmatically. But, like I said, sales will still play a very important role.

At the center of the RTB ecosystem are the ad exchanges. These platforms allow all the various players in the ecosystem to share supply and demand and create liquidity in the market. Examples of ad exchanges include Right Media, the DoubleClick exchange, AppNexus, and many others. On top of these pure-play ad exchanges are many ad networks and supply-side platforms that have essentially built ad exchanges on top of their existing products. The lines get very blurry between the "pure play" ad networks and the other aggregators of inventory that make that inventory available programmatically.

Similar to how stock or commodities exchanges allow inventory to be transacted upon at high volumes with maximum liquidity, the advertising exchanges play that central role. But it's very important to understand that, just like in the financial services world, the big revenue opportunity is not with the exchange; it's with brokers representing buyers or sellers. It's these brokerages that represent the bulk of the value and that pull away the highest percentage of the transaction costs.

The equivalents of brokers in the RTB space are the ad networks, the supply-side platforms (SSPs), and the demand-side platforms (DSPs.) All of these ecosystem players have important roles and provide value. However, it should be noted that the lines are beginning to blur throughout the ecosystem. I predict that in the next few years, many DSPs will roll out SSP services, and many SSPs will become full-fledged ad exchanges. (But more on this in another article.)

So let's follow the ecosystem participants from start to finish:

The impression starts with the consumer and runs through a web browser. (I didn't put device in here, but note that even on mobile and tablets, there's a browser involved.) The impression moves over to the publisher, through some SSP (or ad network) to the ad exchange, and then through to the DSP that is managed by an agency trading desk team on behalf of an advertiser.

There's nothing very sophisticated about what I've drawn here -- but note that this is the simplest way I could draw the RTB ecosystem. Here's another view:

Note that even this is a simplified view, and that many of the various partners can service numerous blocks in the ecosystem. At the end of the day, the RTB ecosystem is made up of dozens of players (possibly hundreds), and they're all scrambling to figure out their business models. This new ecosystem is definitely the future, but how all the pieces will ultimately fit together is still being determined.

The important thing to note in the RTB space is that from the moment consumers visit a web page, the entire transaction of selling and delivering the advertisements to them takes only a few hundred milliseconds. And this is where the revolution plays out; the competition over those impressions plays out in real time. The best ad for monetizing that user is theoretically shown, and the highest yield for the publisher is achieved. Thus, it should make the ad ecosystem function much better.

But there are many changes that have to take place, and I believe we'll see it happen. First is that publishers need to push more and more of their premium inventory into the RTB environments. Publishers can make use of almost any ad exchange or SSP to create a private exchange where they can define advertiser-specific or agency-specific terms that are negotiated in advance, and the transaction simply makes use of the RTB infrastructure. Terms with specific advertisers can be reached in pre-decided negotiations, and the transaction takes place through the RTB infrastructure.

In a nuts-and-bolts summary article like this, I've glossed over a lot of the nuance and details, and I'm sure we'll hear from a few parties about what I've missed or how I've not quite explained this correctly. But I welcome the dialogue. In the RTB space, I think there's a lot of focus on the details, and not a lot of high-level framing going on -- which alienates some of the industry folks who are looking to participate but haven't dived in yet.

I hope this helps. Let me know if you want more articles like this.

Eric Picard is CEO of Rare Crowds.

On Twitter? Follow Picard at @ericpicard. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"3D illustration of a gavel" image via Shutterstock.

 

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