Darren Herman wants a conflict-free ad exchange. So do I. We assume there could be one because we look at the much bigger and more efficient financial markets and see they are run on exchanges. But, in reality, the financial world has moved on from exchanges, and so will the ad world.
An article of faith: markets inevitably evolve from inefficient middlemen/arbitrageurs to efficient, transparent and fair crossing platforms. From Bazaar to Exchange. And then they live happily ever after.
But wait, consider this: of the buy and sell orders UBS handles in NASDAQ-listed stocks, it sends less than 5% to an exchange. The rest it internalizes (the infamous "dark pool"). That is, UBS matches buyers and sellers of stocks amongst their own brokerage customers.
Brokerages avoid exchanges. Instead, these days they tend to either be market-makers, internalizing as much of their trading as possible, or sell their order flow to third-party market makers, like Knight Trading*.
Internalization allows brokerage firms to minimize exchange fees, keep the bid-ask spread for themselves, and avoid giving information to competitors. Internalization does not provide transparency and fairness, like an exchange does, and that is part of its draw for the market-makers. Putting your orders into the exchange, where everyone can see them, is like a poker game where everyone else can see your cards. Exchanges level the playing field, and if you're smarter than average, you dislike level playing fields**.
Exchanges were the best way to minimize transaction costs when communication was cheap but computing power was expensive. That time is past.
All the major ad exchanges are now owned by some of the biggest online media companies. AdX: Google. RMX: Yahoo! AdECN: Microsoft. They are no longer open markets, they are internal markets. As Yahoo! turns off Invite Media and everyone else contemplates the same, the media companies start to look like silos. Google's acquisition of Invite is the final clue. Invite is their e-Trade, the customer UI that allows easy access to their inventory. Whatever audience you're buying, Google can find it in their content network. So can Yahoo!, to an extent, and Microsoft and AOL and FAN and Akamai. If they don't happen to have an audience in house, they will buy order flow by subsidizing publishers to come into their content networks. Each of these companies can internalize all orders that come to them. They will not interoperate*** and they do not need to interoperate.
By internalizing, these media companies get to keep the transaction costs and keep their market activity quiet. They also get benefits that the brokerage houses aren't allowed--because the brokerage houses are regulated--like pushing their own inventory even if there is a better deal for their customer somewhere else.
How this will play out: the major media companies will each buy or build DSP-like capabilities to allow data-driven access to their inventory. They will build out their network of publishers so they can fulfill any audience request internally (internally here meaning either their own inventory or that of their enfiefed publishers.) At that point media buyers will be faced with an array of relatively undifferentiated media companies to buy from, each offering to best place the media buyer's ads in its own audience.
Sound familiar? This was exactly the situation of the media buyers four years ago, vis a vis the ad networks. We have taken our two steps forward and are now taking one back, to a closed world where media sellers protect their margins by obfuscating what they are selling. Not with the complete opacity of the ad networks, but through the inability of buyers to learn because they are kept apart from the data and segmentation that guides their buy.
Media buyers need to figure out how they can hold their own against the big media company market makers. They need to build, buy or closely partner with a DSP, one that is direct connected to all the large media companies and pub brokers, and lets the media buyers have their own proprietary data, algorithms and results.
Tomorrow's online ad buying world will look a lot like yesterday's, only with more technology.
Prediction without predictions is just prattle, so here are some:
- There are not enough DSPs to go around. I count maybe ten indies that have technology up and running. A few more in the works that I know of. There are at least twice as many companies that will need to build or buy one. I don't expect more than two or three of the current indies to still be independent in 18 months.
- Yahoo! will realize it needs to buy order flow. It will bring in some premium ad networks to provide audience balance in RMX by buying or partnering.
- Direct connection between DSPs and pub brokers/publishers will proliferate, producing much fail among the technologically naive.
- Third-party ad exchanges will stop calling themselves that and start calling themselves what they are, pub brokers.
An independent ad exchange--really a private crossing network with a clearinghouse function--needs to exist. It will allow innovation to continue outside of the spotlight. But it needs to rise up organically from the industry, because there's no money to be made, no exit. The New York Stock Exchange was formed as a cooperative by a group of brokers who needed interconnection and interoperability. They didn't support it because they thought the entity itself would be valuable, they did it to make their own businesses more valuable. What we need now is our very own Buttonwood Agreement with the same aims and similar methods.
* A brief survey of the market microstructure issues around internalization is here. But read it for its discussion of transparency.
** The leading proponents of the recission of NYSE Rule 390 in 2000 were the big brokerage houses. Cynical voices said this was because they were also the largest investors in the ECNs. But it seems obvious from a remove that the investments in the ECNs arose from the same cause as the desire to get rid of 390: the desire to trade in private.
*** This is where the financial services analogy starts to fall apart. The big market-makers interoperate not just through the exchanges but through ECNs and private crossing networks. The reality of financial markets makes this necessary. There is not, at this stage, and won't be for some time, the same need for interoperability between, say, Google and Yahoo!