Is the Display Ad world too complex? (AKA, DSP, SSP, What?!)

Short answer: Yes, it is. But today, we’ll try to approach understanding why, and what consequences all this complexity brings. A few days ago, a friend of mine and I realized we had another friend in common that we never knew of, so I said: “The world really is a village”, and she gave me an answer I’d never heard nor thought of: “And really very similar to a maze”. This crazy deep and also very simple analysis meant one thing that could easily apply to the Display Ad world too: As small as it is, it can get impossibly complex. 

When I first got to the PPC world, my mentor tried to explain how it worked in a very simple way: When someone wants to launch an Ad, they pay Google Ads to feature their campaigns on websites that want to make money from showing Ads. Well, that’s not a lie, but also couldn’t be farther from the truth, which is really a children’s phone game. So today we’ll try to break it into pieces and explain each one as simple as possible, shall we? 

Let’s begin with step one: We decide it’s the right time to launch an Ad campaign. With that in mind, we go ahead and hire either a PPC expert or a specialized Agency to create a strategy and run it. Then, they’ll create a strategy considering the right targeting, design, wording, and every aspect to consider before launching the Ad. Once that’s crafted, they’ll choose another company to, for example, send your Ads to the correct websites. So, to put it clearly: You hire someone, then they hire someone, who may also hire someone. 

Once the Ad is all good to go, it’s launched and sent to its first stop: The SSP platform of someone’s (probably not you, but any of your hired ones) choice. Basically, what SSP does is bring all of the Ads that want to be featured on websites together in just one place to figure out what’s the target they are going for and how to get them there. You can think of SSP as some sort of Grand Central Station where everyone is trying to get to the train that will take them to where they want, but with Ads and websites that companies will later have to bid for. So how much would you bid to get to Uptown? Probably not much, right? But what if only 3 people, from the millions in Grand Station, could get to Uptown and everyone who got there was getting a big prize? You’d give it another thought, wouldn’t you?

So, once they’ve been gathered all together in the SSP, Ads seem to be all ready to go to the websites they are meant for. But hold on, there are more stops in the way. Just like SSP matches all the Ads that want to be featured on websites, there’s another platform called DSP that brings together all the websites that want to sell spots in their websites to feature Ads in. But how does this process work? How do they choose which Ad will be featured on each website? Just as we said, it’s a bidding process. DSPs probably will work with a Bid Management company that will handle the real-time bid that everyone is going for. Also, as we said, the bid will always depend on how good the inventory of the website is. You probably won’t bid as much for a spot in a local newspaper that gets 1000 impressions a day as for a spot in The New York Times that probably gets way more. If you want a good spot, you’ll have to pay for it. And I say “you”, but I actually mean “one of the companies that the ones you hired hired”. 

So, once that bidding process is done and everyone is apparently going with their perfect fits, we reach our story’s sort-of-happy ending: The Ad is featured on the website of your choice, you’ve reached Uptown! Or, the Ad is featured where it could be featured according to your bidding capacity, you reached… Midtown? Hopefully, you are not too far away from where you were striving for.


Just as this chart above, we are trying to make a very complex process into one we can try and understand so we can make the best of it, but the reality is not even the experts fully get it. So the bottom line here is one: If every person we hire is also hiring another one who is also hiring another one and so on, then how can we even track what’s going on? Well, we can’t really. 

Just the other day I was reading Dr. Fou’s thread on Advertising statistics, and apparently, 15% of what publisher’s spend on Ads is lost. And by lost, I mean that in this wide complex maze that an Ad has to go through, there is no way to track where that money goes. And this is just one example of how this complexity affects the everyday job of those looking to launch Ad campaigns. 

Another great example is Ad Fraud and how it can impact your CTR. Let’s say you hire someone you trust 100% to throw your Ad, but then that someone hires another someone, and they hire another someone and you end up having no idea where your Ad goes and who’s in charge of it now. Those cases, which are the vast majority, will probably end up leading to an awful outcome: Having your Ad featured in a website that gets most of its impressions from bots. Facing that situation, you could think of hiring an Ad Fraud company, but then you’ll again be hiring someone, that may hire another someone, and there’s really no way out. 

So, to conclude, my point here is pretty simple: Are we making the Display Ad world way too complex? Even with Google’s DoubleClick existence, there are so many options and such a wide variety of paths to go through, that, more often than not, we can end up getting lost. I don’t really have a solution for this, but I do have a recommendation: Now that you have this information in your hands, make sure you check everyone you hire is as trustworthy and “un-sketchy” as possible.

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