The rise of discerning publishers: Ad tech vendors face increased scrutiny

In this rollercoaster of an ad tech market, publishers are displaying nerves of a high-strung chihuahua in a thunderstorm. 

And who can blame them? 

These past few months have been an agonizing ordeal. 

First, the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank left them fretting over whether they’d be able to access their money. Then, the demise of prominent ad tech vendors like EMX, Yahoo’s SSP, and most recently MediaMath has thrown those same publishers into a tizzy, making them wonder if they’ll have as much money to access. 

Somewhere amidst all this uncertainty, their nervousness has transformed into cautiousness. 

As a result, publishers are much more discerning about the companies they choose to associate with. They’re asking penetrating questions and asserting stronger demands to safeguard their interests.

“Publishers are looking at their relationships with ad tech vendors more closely now,” said Benjamin Lanfry, chief supply officer at Ogury. His company, caught up in the storm caused by MediaMath’s demise a month ago, has witnessed firsthand this shift in attitude unfolding. 

For some publishers, it means digging deep to find out if an ad tech company is financially stable and has a solid track record of paying promptly. 

As Lanfry puts it, they’re weighing up a company’s sequential liability stance with how well they meet their payment obligations. In these uncertain times, both factors are crucial: a strong sequential liability policy shows a commitment to financial responsibility, and timely payment demonstrates reliability. 

On top of that, publishers are also asking ad tech companies whether they have insurance in place to protect themselves in case other companies default on payments owed to them.

“I think the topic of insurance liability is going to come up a lot more moving forward given the risk that some companies were exposed to,” said Lanfry. 

This isn’t to say that publishers weren’t asking these questions before. Of course, they were, given how much money is at stake. But there’s definitely more intensity around these queries now. Tier one and two publishers, especially, are stepping up their game and asking for a better understanding of where their money is coming from and what risks they face. 

As GumGum’s evp Adam Schenkel explained: “There are certain publishers who reach out all the time to ask for a better understanding of where our money is coming from and what our exposure to risk is, but it’s definitely intensified recently.”

That’s the thing with this trend. It’s like a boiling point during times of crisis, and then it cools down when things settle. Even so, this latest wave of interest is undoubtedly raising awareness and making publishers more alert to the risks they face.

“It amounts to publishers making sure ad tech companies are acting as an agent on their behalf that would do what they would want them to do in a situation like that [MediaMath’s bankruptcy],” said Schenkel. “Yes, they want ad tech companies to help them maximize ad yields, but they also want them to minimize risk at the same time.”

Beyond just assessing an ad tech company’s financial stability, publishers are now delving further into their potential to not only boost revenue but also to do so without disrupting their existing relationships with other ad tech partners.

The aftermath of the EMX and Yahoo’s SSP collapse earlier this year has sparked a significant increase in such inquiries from publishers, as observed by Index Exchange.

“We’re seeing publishers lean into conversations around what partners are adding value and subsequently how many of them they need to actually work with,” said Andrew Casale, CEO of Index Exchange. “Parts of the publisher community are doing due diligence on their vendors, because they’re increasingly of the view that not every [ad tech] company is created equal.”

In some cases, this means ad tech companies like Index Exchange filling out a questionnaire. However, there are instances where publishers take it a step further, subjecting their partners to an ad tech equivalent of a bake-off.

“These are the most ambitious versions of these assessments where publishers are expressing a desire to switch off and on each of their partners over a period of several weeks in order to determine the incremental value of all of them,” said Casale. “We think this is important because some may not be as optimal for the publisher now as they were when they were appointed years ago.”

On that point, while smart tech and testing play a role, the real key to avoiding risks, especially financial ones, lies in staying tuned into the market.

“So much of being able to avoid issues comes down to having good eyes and ears for any potential problems that are brewing like MediaMath, for instance,” said Kurt Donnell, CEO at Freestar, an ad management firm, which represents hundreds of publishers across various verticals. “It was five months ago that we shut that business off because of the worries we had following discussions with our partners on the supply-side platform level and then at MediaMath. The risk had reached a tipping point.”

Let’s be clear, though, this isn’t going to signal a mass crackdown on ad tech by publishers. Not enough of them have the leverage to do that, and even those that do are still very much reliant on those companies to make them money.

No, this emergence of more discerning publishers really spells bad news for the undifferentiated ad tech vendors — those that are nothing more than commoditzed parts of the market that only compete only on price.

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