How ad platforms work (and why you should care)

(By Eric Picard, Originally Published in iMediaConnection, 11/8/12)

Ad platforms are now open, meaning that startups and other technology companies can plug into them and take advantage of their feature sets. The ad technology space is now API driven, just like the rest of the web technology space. The significance of this change hasn’t hit a lot of people yet, but it will. The way this change will affect almost all the companies in ad technology will have an impact on everything: buying, selling, optimization, analytics, and investing.

Companies in our space used to have to build out the entire ad technology “stack” in order to build a business. That meant ad delivery (what most people think of as “ad serving”), event counting (impressions, clicks, conversions, and rich media actions), business intelligence, reporting, analytics, billing, etc. After building out all those capabilities, in a way that can scale significantly, each company would build its “differentiator” features. Many companies in the ad technology space have been created based on certain features of an ad platform. But because the ad platforms in our space were “closed,” each company had to build its own ad platform every time. This wasted a lot of time and money and — unbeknownst to investors — created a huge amount of risk.

Almost every startup in the ad platform space has existed at the whim of Google — specifically because of DoubleClick, the most ubiquitous ad platform in the market. When Google acquired DoubleClick, its platform was mostly closed (didn’t have extensive open APIs), and its engineering team subsequently went through a long cycle of re-architecture that essentially halted new feature development for several years. The market demanded new features — such as ad verification, brand safety, viewable impressions, real-time bidding, real-time selling, and others — that didn’t exist in DoubleClick’s platform or any others with traction in the space.

This led to the creation of many new companies in each space where new features were demanded. In some cases, Google bought leaders in those spaces. In others, Google has now started to roll out features that replicate the entirety of some companies’ product offerings. The Google stack is powerful and broad, and the many companies that have built point solutions based on specific features that were once lacking in Google’s platform suddenly are finding themselves competing with a giant who has a very advanced next-generation platform underlying it. Google has either completed or is in the process of integrating all of its acquisitions on top of this platform, and it has done a great job of opening up APIs that allow other companies to plug into the Google stack.

I’ve repeatedly said over the years that at the end of the natural process this industry is going through, we’ll end up with two to three major platforms (possibly four) driving the entire ecosystem, with a healthy ecosystem of other companies sitting on top of them. Right now, our ecosystem isn’t quite healthy — it’s complex and has vast numbers of redundancies. Many of those companies aren’t doing great and are likely to consolidate into the platform ecosystem in the next few years.

So how does the “stack” of the ad platform function? Which companies are likely to exist standalone on top of the stack? Which will get consumed by the stack? And which companies are going to find themselves in trouble?

Let’s take a look.

How ad platforms work (and why should you care)

Pretty much every system is going to have a stack that contains buckets of services and modules that contain something like what you see above. In an ideal platform, each individual service should be available to the external partner and should be consumable by itself. The idea here is that the platform should be decomposable such that the third party can use the whole stack or just the pieces it needs.

Whether we’re discussing the ubiquitous Google stack or those of competitors like AppNexus, the fact that these platforms are open means that, instead of building a replica of a stack like the one above, an ad-tech startup can now just build a new box that isn’t covered by the stack (or stacks) that it plugs into. Thus, those companies can significantly differentiate.

This does beg the question of whether a company can carve out a new business that won’t just be added as a feature set by the core ad platform (instantly creating a large well-funded competitor). To understand this, entrepreneurs and investors should review the offering carefully: How hard would it be to build the features in question? Is the question of growing the business one of technical invention requiring patents and significant intellectual property, or is it one of sales and marketing? Is the offering really a standalone business, or is it just a feature of an ad platform that one would expect to be there? And finally, will the core platforms be the acquirer of this startup or can a real differentiated business be created?

The next few years will be interesting. You can expect these two movements to occur simultaneously: Existing companies will consolidate into the platforms, and new companies will be created that take advantage of the new world — but in ways that require less capital and can fully focus on differentiation and the creation of real businesses of significance.


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