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Why the Financial Times won’t touch header bidding despite Trinity Mirror’s claim it reveals Google’s ‘secret margins’ on ad sales


By Seb Joseph, News editor

December 9, 2016 | 8 min read

Header bidding has been the must-have for many publishers this year but for the Financial Times the promise of better advertising yields isn’t worth the risk of longer page-load times that could be incurred by using the code.

Financial Times

Why the Financial Times won’t touch header bidding despite Trinity Mirror’s claim it reveals Google’s ‘secret margins’.

It’s a legitimate fear, despite header bidding being pitched as a way for publishers to wrestle back some control of their ad sales from Google. For all the promise of being able to view how much media buyers are willing to pay for a given ad impression in real-time, the Financial Times thinks it’s a game of diminishing returns.

The case against header bidding

Like her peers, Elli Papadaki, the broadsheet’s head of programmatic sales has reservations about the length of time it takes to load a page stuffed with multiple header bidding tags but unlike them, she doesn’t feel the overwhelming amount of CPM lift created by the simpler auction is enough to commit to it.

For a subscription-powered business like the Financial Times, the promise of maintaining a rich user experience without header bidding outweighs the need to increase revenue from it, though there is a “very fine line” between the two, said Papadaki at The Drum’s Programmatic Punch event.

Elli Papadaki, FT, global programmatic director, speaking at Programatic Punch 2016

An increase in header bidding tags being placed on pages, so that publishers can put more ad impressions up for further simultaneous bids by multiple groups of buyers via demand sources (ad exchanges), means the greater the risk of latency.

This could be through longer times to load pages, slowing the time it takes to fetch a bid from a bidder, and even slowing the time to serve the creative and therefore lowering viewability, which squashes the number of impressions served.

“The biggest concern for us when we looked at header bidding was the fact that it could add latency and we have looked extensively at the impact that latency could have on someone becoming a subscriber,” she said.

Can wrappers solve latency woe?

Seeing that link means she can put a clear monetary value on her concerns, something not all publishers are able to do given their business models are built on advertising revenue, whereas the Financial Times is more evenly spread to include subscriptions (60%).

“The moment you put a monetary value on the risk that latency has on the page we instantly take a step back and ask 'is it worth it?' At the minute the way the technology is set up is more of a short-term game over potential longer-term losses especially because we still have a very strong direct [sales] business.”

Wrappers have emerged to bring some order to the latency chaos. Another line of javascript, they do the heavy lifting of synching cookies and gathering tags in one place, reducing the concern for latency, though it can still be an issue if more demand sources are added to the wrapper tag.

The case for header bidding

Header bidding’s revenue gains outweigh the risks in the eyes of many publishers, as shown by how most (90%) of the 600 publishers in the UK and US polled by AOL in May said they will have it in place within the next year. The overriding rationale from them being that it helps publishers wrestle back some control of ad sales from Google due to the increased competition for impressions it sparks.

Adtech execs and publishers discuss header bidding at Programmatic Punch

“I think header bidding is ultimately a fantastic development and is largely an opportunity to stop the dominance of Google over ad inventory so we can resist them taking first look on every impression,” said Trinity Mirror’s head of programmatic Amir Malik, a former Googler, who spoke on a Programmatic Punch panel alongside senior executives at OpenX and AppNexus.

While he shares Papadaki’s view of it not being a long term solution, he does see it as the first step to fixing the disintermediation of the seller from the buyer amid the rise of programmatic.

As good a reason a as this is to invest in header bidding there's also the financial gain for Trinity Mirror. In a separate interview earlier this year, he revealed that header bidding sparked a 17% jump in programmatic revenue for display ads.

Malik further went on to explain to Programmatic Punch attendees that header bidding would help reduce publishers' reliance on Google's ad stack. He added: "Header bidding has been a fantastic development for us, it is largely an opportunity to stop the dominance of Google over ad inventory so we can resist Google taking the first look on every impression. Google rarely responds to initiatives in the adtech space, unless billion of dollars are in it for them and they are responding to header bidding.”

But what about Google's First Look?

His reference is to Google’s Doubleclick First Look offering, which works like header bidding but allows publishers to see how much an ad impression will fetch within its own sprawling ecosystem. One of the benefits of this (compared to header bidding) is the ease of integration. And yet it does little to assuage industry-wide concerns that publishers are being eased into the online behemoth’s tech stack where there is a common held belief that its algorithms favors its own media and impressions.

“They [Google] have been winning impressions far below their value because of Adwords and there’s been no competition against it,” said Malik. “Header bidding has allowed us to bring that competition and just reveal how much margin Google are actually making. We’re essentially at a stage where we can take back some control from [sic] publishers. This isn’t going to replace the decline in direct revenues but it’s going to give us a chance in a programmatic world.”

With both the Financial Times and Trinity Mirror talking about the intricacies of header bidding, it’s emblematic of how publishers are no longer at the mercy of tech providers steering them as to what works best for their ad stack.

“We are much more educated around the benefits and challenges involved with placing tech on their pages, said Rachel Wilkinson, The Drum’s head of programmatic.

“This is due, in part, to the migration of talent across the ecosystem, but also the increase of accessible content and resource to help lift internal skills and knowledge. Many more Publishers are now ensuring they leverage technology based on what works best for their strategy, and in doing so the tech companies are responding with a more consultative and educational approach to integrations.

“The ad tech companies will have already been a step ahead of the rest of us in recognising a solution to improve latency will be needed, so next year we will no doubt see a growth in these educational academy style sessions that will allow them to seed knowledge of their solutions into publishers teams.”

Server-to-server solutions

Whether publishers will still be debating the merits of header bidding 12 months from now remains to be seen. It's clearly facing its own existential questions of its future as publishers weigh up whether to move to server-to-sever alternatives that host entire auction in the cloud rather than on someone’s browser. One of the biggest upsides to this being that it could mean less page load times.

Imran Khan, head of programmatic and partnerships for xAd's EMEA business, said: “Publishers often think very short-term rather than thinking about six-to-12 months how is this going to benefit our business. They have an obsession about what yield in the short term, that hinders their ability to go out to market. It is up to the publishers to take long-term view to ensure their business is built so brands can get what they want.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Goodfellow

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