Let the Right Ones In: Evaluating Header Partners

Not All Ad Tech Is Created Equal

Viva la header revolution! Header tags have been a blessing for virtually every player in digital advertising. As publishers note a boom in CPMs, advertisers are finally getting better ideas of available inventory and getting smarter about valuation. Header tags have given new life to display and video private exchanges and are paving the way forward for programmatic guaranteed, in which upfront deals are executed through programmatic channels.

Beyond the cheerleading, it seems everyone and their grandmother is introducing a header integration of late. No the market can’t sustain so many demand sources – especially when new ones seem to appear by the day – but consolidation still seems further down the road. More publishers are also embracing the header – with the average pub boasting five or more partners according to a recent AOL survey – so there’s still room for expansion.

But this ain’t Pokemon, so publishers don’t have to integrate them all – particularly as you know from experience with order management systems, ad servers, SSPs and others that not all tech is created equal. A publisher needs a system for determining if a header partner can cut the mustard, and per the course in ad tech, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for evaluation. You’re going to have to analyze your partners based on three major components: integration difficulty, latency management and overall performance.

The principled exchange for publishers.

Plug It In, Plug It In

Possibly the biggest joke in digital advertising is the notion that intermediary tech – definitely think SDKs – is plug-n-play. “You can be up and running in no time flat!” the cheery sales guy says as he clinks your pint glass. HA! Tell that one to the ops professional again after 12 hours of fussing with your damn code and see if you escape unscathed.

Header integrations are no exception – they’ll often be advertised as “easy peasy,” but since you’re installing tags into your site’s source code, you’re definitely going to need some development resources. That can add up quick in terms of costliness and make an integration not seem worthwhile. Fortunately, more and more publishers are incorporating a development person or two into the ops team, which puts a dent in borrowing developer time.

In addition, managed header wrappers do actually offer something akin to plug-n-play. The provider managing the wrapper should be able to incorporate your desired partners with little trouble, and take most of the weight of integration off your shoulders.

Sure, header players are theoretically competitors, but there’s a lot of advantage to playing nice with others. Most notably, companies like Index Exchange and AppNexus seem to be pushing the way toward standardization when it comes to integrating within wrappers. But note that if you’re running an open-source wrapper (you probably have your reasons like a need for extreme customization), partner integration is your burden to bear.

To avoid wasting your time and resources installing deadbeat partners – what I’ll call “publisher’s remorse” – can you tell whether a header source will be a worthwhile addition during the integration?

Not really, but there are certainly indications that can be telling. For example, Snapsort CEO Chris Reid notes that the sophistication of the tech itself is usually a good proxy for performance. Better crafted APIs suggest your partner has experience and expertise.

On the other hand, Slader CTO Peter Bernheim notes that sophistication and uniqueness can be highly different qualities.

“When anyone departs from what is significantly ‘standard’ in other partners, it can be a bit concerning,” he says. “Why is this partner trying to reinvent the wheel? Can you understand the magic that is happening?”

You can learn a lot about your new partner during integration via their documentation – i.e., realistic and detailed as opposed to “Get going in minutes!” – as well as the amount of support they offer in this trying time. Providing code for automatic line-item generation within the ad server has almost become standard operating procedure – if your partner doesn’t offer this and leaves you manually inserting tags, you might question their experience and expertise.

Graphiq Head of Revenue Technology AJ Okreke says introduction and kickoff calls are key – seamless meetings of the minds are good omens for the entire integration. But publishers must also perform due diligence – quiz each partner on their demand and how it’s differentiated, and peer over the contract with a eye out for abnormalities like odd revenue shares.

And of course you should get the word on the street about the partner in question from your publisher connections, whether via the Reddit ad ops subreddit, (warning: shameless plug ahead) an AdMonsters event like the Publisher Forum in Miami this November or the local ad ops watering hole. (How do you know if it’s an ad ops bar? Does it have alcohol?)

At the same time, Reid suggests you weigh your peers’ opinions carefully.

“You’d think that other publishers experiences would be telling of performance, and to a degree they’re a guidepost, but every site can yield different results,” he comments. “The best way to find out is to integrate.”

Staying in the Fast Lane

Latency concerns have held back many publishers from seeking the warm embrace of header bidding. The golden solution for overcoming latency is server-to-server (S2S) connections – either through the header or right into the ad server. Not only are these lightning fast, they take the weight of the transmissions and auctions off of the browser. The latter is a growing issue with increasing mobile web traffic and worries about data drain.

Alas, S2S is still in its infant stages on an adoption and a technical perspective. Most of the available solutions employ a wrapper model, but other demand sources are reluctant to play ball because they want a presence on the page and are apprehensive about the security of data transmission and operating procedures of the company managing the S2S connection.

Still, there’s a lot header partners can do to relieve latency woes, and providers are constantly innovating to speed up the process. Much of this depends on whether the partner has a solid architecture, but data center distribution – particularly around high population centers – is another factor to take into consideration. Providers can also bolster speed through internal connections with DSPs and other buying platforms, including possible co-location. You should ask how they are compensating for connectivity issues on various devices.

But you also need to be monitoring latency on your side as well. First off, a wrapper fires off all partners concurrently rather than sequentially. Monitoring partner timeouts is essential, but in addition you should play around with A/B testing on timeouts to see who are your fastest operators – though other circumstances may play a role here.

Latency also could be a sign that you’ve got too many players in the game.

“Eventually, running too many partners and too many bid requests could technically increase the likelihood that bid requests will timeout more often, especially on slow network connections,” Bernheim says.

Judging the All-Around

Latency, however, is merely a key factor in judging overall performance of your header partners. As you can imagine there’s a lot of aspects to consider, and compiling and crunching all the page-level data is not a task for the meek. You’re probably in for a lot of quality spreadsheet time – oh joy!

Here are several factors to cross-examine as you start.

  • CPMs. Duh! Who is giving you a straight revenue lift?
  • Share of Revenue. How much dough is each partner bringing? Of course this should be cross-checked against the CPM bumps to give you a better sense of holistic inventory value, and whether priority levels should be adjusted.
  • Propensity to Bid/Average Bid Rate. Who really wants your stuff and is always raising their paddle? But then you have to take a look at…
  • Average Win Rate. Call them your wise bidders – obviously the buyers who know what they want and what to pay. If you have sources with high bid rates but low win rates, you better have a conversation with them about their valuations.
  • Discrepancies. Yep, they happen in header bidding too. If a partner with high CPMs is also reporting major (say 10% or higher), you’re going to have an awkward conversation.



While diving into the minutiae, though, you can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. You need to examine how the partners are interacting with each other – who often bids against whom, and who is on the losing side.

“It’s most important to look at the auction holistically, and how a new partner affects things,” Bernheim comments. “When are they bidding? Who are they bidding against? How is overall revenue affected, and which partner loses out when partner X performs better? If you have really great relationships with a partner who is cannibalized by bringing a new partner on board, is it worth it?”

Another aspect to consider is the tech itself and your relationship with the partner – is this a company that will help take you to the next level? As Reid notes, the best header partners are eager to experiment and try interesting things. Can they accommodate PMPs? A forward-thinking provider could help you with a straight link to a buyer that could facilitate programmatic guaranteed – upfront spend with programmatic execution.

Sometimes you might have to make the tough decision to drop a partner. Your communication should be solid before you take this drastic step (though if the partner is hard to reach, that may make the decision easier); warnings should be dealt out first. Your analysis should offer concrete details about where and why that source is slacking so they aren’t blindsided.

Remember they don’t want to get kicked out of your header, so offer them insight into how to improve their showing. You’ll be surprised at the willingness to adapt and improve.

The Final Assessment

Header tags have upended display advertising (you could even say disrupted if you’re feeling cliché-happy) very much to the publisher’s benefit. The revenue uplift is awesome, but as with most ad tech advances, header tags have made ops’ job that much more complicated. Judging your programmatic partners is a much more nuanced affair, for better or worse.

Never forget that not all tech is created equal; you can’t just add a partner and expect the revenue to come rolling in. Even from the initial calls you should be evaluating your header partners, as well as paying close attention during the integration. Potential latency is possibly the biggest worry when it comes to header integrations, so find out your partner’s plan for lessening the impact and what you can do on your side.

Finally, intense monitoring and performance analysis are key in getting the most out of your header partners – there’s a lot of data to examine, but pay special attention to CPMs, bid rate, win rate, discrepancies and share of revenue. At the same time, building a relationship with quality partners will pay dividends as you continue to develop this maturing space together.