Ad Tech & Programmatic

Why Vox Media continues to invest in ad tech

The company has officially opened up its SSP for business.
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Vox Media opened up its SSP to advertisers.

The home of New York Magazine, SB Nation, The Verge, and its namesake site, Vox, among others, has been making substantial investments in advertising technology since 2016. In June, it announced its own supply-side platform. After beta tests that began in September, it’s now ready for business.

Though these investments aren’t entirely unique—the Washington Post debuted an ad-buying network called Zeus Prime last year—they’re part of a rising tide in media as publishers try to wrestle back some control from ad-tech vendors, whether by axing open-market programmatic all together, investing in their own ad tech, or testing targeting tools like seller-defined audiences.

Third-party ad-tech partners “don’t have a direct connect to the audiences and that creates misaligned incentives,” AJ Frucci, Vox Media’s SVP of media revenue and head of Concert, its ad marketplace, told Marketing Brew, explaining that they “contribute to a more convoluted and a more indirect path between buyer and seller.”

Vox’s SSP is a part of the company’s Concert advertising network, which is a marketplace of different publishers that use its proprietary Athena inventory, which Frucci described as a higher-quality display ad. Previously, Concert was available through third-party ad-tech vendors, but now its inventory will only be available programmatically through the SSP, said Vox Media spokesperson Peyton McCarthy.

That marketplace includes publishers like Condé Nast, Hearst, The Atlantic, and NBCUniversal. The creation of the SSP will enable advertisers and their ad-tech partners to bid on Athena inventory.

It’s a “nonstandard solution in a programmatic ecosystem that is typically built for the lowest-common-denominator standardization,” said Frucci. It’s also a middle ground between going fully programmatic and creating custom, sponsored content for each individual publisher, he said.

The SSP was beta tested with a few CPG and alc-bev brands, though Frucci declined to name them. He also declined to say what the SSP’s fee structure is or how much of Vox’s total inventory is split between direct buys and programmatic.

Vox will continue to work with other SSPs to fill the rest of its inventory. Vox is currently working with AppNexus, Pubmatic and TripleLift, according to the ad-tech tool Sincera.

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Though it first partnered with The Trade Desk as its sole demand-side platform, Frucci said he expects Vox to open up the SSP to other DSPs by the end of the year. Frucci said that the company is considering expanding beyond the Athena ad unit, Frucci said, but didn’t provide specifics.

Having other publishers onboard is important, Frucci said, as advertisers (and publishers) have long lamented the long tail of the internet. According to a recent report from Ebiquity, its US clients are spending roughly 8% of their budgets on clickbait.

“For the revolutionary technology that [programmatic advertising] is, it’s genuinely kind of a minefield of challenges, whether it be brand suitability, transparency, margins, and the tolls collected between buyer and seller,” said Frucci.

Bespoke inventory, like Vox’s Athena units, can be expensive, explained Paul Bannister, chief strategy officer at CafeMedia, who compared it to other inventory providers like Teads and Kargo, which also claim to offer more unique display inventory. The SSP Triplelift expanded into programmatic product placement in 2020.

“[Publishers] like them because they pay higher CPMs, and buyers tend to like them (within reason) because they drive better results (but are expensive),” he wrote in a direct message.

When asked if the SSP would lower the cost of Athena’s inventory, McCarthy told Marketing Brew that a “more direct connection between buyer and seller allows us to be more flexible on pricing.”

Though he called Concert a “consistent growth product” for Vox Media, Frucci said the aim isn’t to upend the SSP market. The point is to expand the market for Athena, not to “compete with Magnite…Pubmatic, whoever it may be.”

Among SSPs, “there is a limited amount of differentiation. But effectively, what a publisher cares about is, like, how much of a check can you send,” said Mike O’Sullivan, co-founder of Sincera. By creating their own display units and having more control of the pipes, publishers can potentially get a bigger piece of the pie.

“We keep more money, we can have closer relationships with our advertisers, we get our own unique formats, and we get to control more of the experience,” he said.

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