Matthew Miller
Nov 13, 2018

Video, transparency and beyond: Rubicon Project's view

The CTO of one of the world's largest programmatic exchanges shares six key priorities.

Tom Kershaw during a programmatic
Tom Kershaw during a programmatic "masterclass" the company held recently in Hong Kong.

Last week, global advertising exchange Rubicon Project announced its first connected-TV (CTV) integration in Asia, with Hong Kong-based myTV Super. The move means advertisers will be able to reach the service's claimed 6.9 million subscribers through web, app and CTV inventory.

Efforts to push further into video were just one of several key initiatives Rubicon Project's global CTO, Tom Kershaw, cited in a recent conversation with Campaign Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong. Kershaw sat down with us prior to a "masterclass" the company hosted for clients and agencies a few weeks ago.

Rubicon Project recently signed on to a set of transparency and fairness principles. Kershaw called the initiative "an important step in the maturation of the industry" and expressed hope every exchange will "aspire to the set of shared values, interdependence and accountability".

Meanwhile, the company remains focused on somewhat more prosaic matters. "Our main focus right now is enabling the unified auction through header bidding—so, enabling as much demand as possible to access inventory and to maximize publisher revenue," Kershaw said. "But more importantly to give buyers exposure to their audiences at scale." 

The exchange space is full of all kinds of specialists—in audio, in video, even in out-of-home, Kershaw said. "If you're a buyer, you have to go to all these different sources for inventory. We tend to think of ourselves as more of a supermarket."

Eliminating "bifurcation of the ecosystem into these little siloes" ultimately means more effective use of ad dollars for marketers, he added. Delivering a unified auction across all types of media may sound simple, but insiders know the devil is in the details, Kershaw asserted. "If I can just run a fair, honest auction, a few hundred billion times a day, across multiple media types, and be really good at managing data so I can match what buyers want to what sellers have, I'll call it a day. I'll be pretty happy with that. And I'll tell you what: We haven't figured it all out yet. Nor has anyone else."

Here are six key areas Kershaw touched upon as important to the company and the ecosystem in general.

Video

Kershaw said the industry still has a ways to go on video, because digital-video CPMs are still significantly below linear-TV CPMs.

"But the gap is closing," he said. "I remember in display just like three years ago—not long ago—a digital publisher said to me, 'You will never ever, in programmatic, hit the CPMs of my sponsorship business. Not in your wildest dreams'. And we've blown past that, because of audience targeting and because of the specificity of our business, and because of header bidding. These things have helped us take display to a point where programmatic is actually better for publishers. And that gap for video is closing pretty quickly."

Kershaw and Rubicon Project are confident about the long-term prospects for video. "There's not enough inventory for demand," Kershaw said. "But over time, as inventory goes up, you'll see more publishers coming in. If I can make as much on digital as linear, I'd much rather do it on digital."

Universal ID

Another priority for Rubicon Project is moving toward a single, industry-wide user identifier, to cut down on the use of cookies and other techniques that add to pageload time.

"This is a hugely important innovation, because right now the industry is putting so many—we're just dropping pixels on pages like crazy and slowing down the user experience," Kershaw said. "We need to stop doing that. We need to be more efficient in how we put stuff on pages and how we target users."

Recent and related

Six exchanges sign commitment to transparency, fairness
A group of programmatic exchanges has committed to a set of principles and said it will work with TAG (Trustworthy Accountability Group) to form a certification based on those principles.

PubMatic launches PMP in Indonesia
Partners include several leading publishers and Mindshare.

The future of header bidding lies in transparency
How is header bidding evolving as a catalyst for programmatic growth, and what does the future hold for this beneficial technology?

The industry's dependence on cookies must end, for two reasons, he added: you can't cookie mobile devices, and users are "sick of it" and are demanding privacy.

The company supports the OpenID standard. "We expect the whole industry is going to follow," Kershaw said. "We will have a single standard for cookies."

Viewability

The current regime, where viewability scores only tell advertisers the probability that their ad will be seen, has to be replaced, Kershaw said. "We want to move toward a model where you only pay for ads that we verify that someone has seen," he said. The company is working on trials, some in APAC and in conjunction with third parties, to get to a model where, after the impression is rendered, the company can accurately assess whether the impression was viewable by a human or not, and then refund advertisers for unseen ads.

Managed prebid

Like most of its peers, Rubicon Project handles header bidding using open-source code available on Prebig.org. Now the company is offering publishers managed prebid, an offering that removes from the publisher's plate the requirement to manage that code.

Instead of having to install and maintain chunks of code across all their pages, publishers who use managed prebid configure header bidding using a simple user interface, but the exchange manages the code. This can reduce not only complexity but also pageload times.

Blockchain

Rubicon Project is also involved in a blockchain pilot with Mindshare, MediaMath and Integral Ad Science.

Kershaw said the distrubuted-ledger technology has several potential uses in programmatic, from big-picture transparency issues like verifying viewability and sharing user-identity information right down to operational efficiency factors.

On the latter point, Kershaw said billing is complicated and slow because there are a lot of steps and a lot of entities involved.

"There are also tons of discrepencies about what ads actually show," he said. "The buyer may think it's showing 20% of the time, and we think its 30% and the publisher thinks it's 50%. And sometimes because of these discrepencies, bills don't get paid for 90 days."

Why not move the money when the ad is shown? he asked. "If you can move the money quickly, as a publisher, I'm willing to offer a pretty substantial discount if I get my money today versus in January. So the potential for blockchain to revolutionize the payment structure and bring transparency and fairness to it, and get rid of some of these discrepancies? To me that's an exciting thing."

APAC

The region is a priority for Rubicon Project not only because of its vastness, but also because of its relative freedom from legacy technology.

"The thing I would say about APAC is that in many aspects it is light years ahead of the rest of the world because of the primary place of the mobile device in the digital ecosystem," Kershaw said. "You just don't see that elsewhere. In other markets, desktop still really matters."

But in APAC more than a billion users have never had a laptop, let alone a desktop. "Their entire digital experience is a small number of apps on a mobile phone," Kershaw said. "The APAC advertising ecosystem five years from now is going to be viewed as ahead of everyone, because they have optimised for that environment at a time when others were still screwing around with stuff that's not going to matter anymore."

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