The Rise of the Curation House

Scott Messer, founder of Messer Media, delves into the pivotal role of Curation Houses in digital advertising, explaining how curation can help bridge the gap between publishers and advertisers with quality-driven inventory in a post-cookie world.

The Importance of Curation

First, let's be clear about what curation means to a publisher. It is more than simply organizing media in a way that is helpful for buyers - it also involves ensuring that spend flows through the pipes from buyer to publisher. Without generating demand, organising inventory is a futile exercise. Many services offer some form of curation, but few actually drive demand as part of the service. This distinction is important because this new form of curation builds a new connectivity between buyers and sellers.

The buyer-seller relationship is broken today. Open auctions are a mess - at best they are burdened by over complexity thanks to everyone seeking full transparency, and at worst they are a vast sea of ubiquitous supply of varying quality. Many publishers bear the financial scars of providing their own versions of curation (PMPs, 2nd party data licensing) that were often ill-received because of mistrust, scalability and workflow challenges, which ultimately doomed private marketplaces and seller-defined audiences.

Demand side platforms, long positioned at the top of the food chain in programmatic, preyed on abundant third party cookies and devoured audiences with ease. Although many solutions fought to counter the power of DSPs in programmatic, rarely did anything evolve and disrupt these apex cookievores. As we enter the cookieless era, open web sellers and cookie-seeking DSPs are at an inflection point.

This sets the stage for a new species of vendor: the Curation House. 

The Rise of Curation Houses

Curation Houses are companies that use their own “secret sauce” to drive demand, often in partnership with the sellside. Some familiar Curation Houses are Kargo, Concert by Vox, Audigent, and Multilocal. They feel like ad networks of yore, but are retooled on modern supply technology, equipped with advanced data targeting features, and are KPI-focused outcome machines. Unlike their SaaS predecessors, the Curation House’s sales team is campaign oriented and wins budgets directly from clients and media agencies.  

Curators historically looked like data vendors selling audiences directly to DSPs, or maybe an all-in-one campaign solution. Like publishers, they too struggled to pierce the DSP veil and influence campaign spend. Unhappy with this situation and seeing an opening on the horizon, they set out for a new operation. Now these new-again intermediaries are providing strategic media services to buyers and often handing checks directly to publishers. Most importantly, they are grabbing control of the campaign decision layer that DSPs dominated for a decade.  

Looking back, DSPs thumbed their noses at conversations with publishers let alone doing an integration. Today, they find themselves building publisher development teams and searching for signals. Curation Houses have been steadily moving closer to the source of that signal, and are striking deals to get code directly onto publisher’s pages.  Further, new SSP offerings like Xandr Curate and Index Marketplaces facilitate and improve the way Curation Houses can represent publisher inventory.

Although DSPs are still critical for actually spending money across the open web, this emplacement gives Curation Houses an opportunity to provide a better audience decisioning engine. Curation Houses have more signal, better access to inventory, and a completely direct path to publisher inventory. Armed with a scaled open-web offering, product marketing budgets and a well-healed sales team, Curation Houses can succeed with buyers where publishers traditionally stumbled. 

Wary of data leakage, beleaguered by rising costs and worn down by contextual “theft”, publishers are quite willing to open their pages to these pixels and scripts in hopes of curated revenue.  But, with great access comes great responsibility. These Curation Houses must deliver on their revenue promises or else face the .js scrapheap.

This dynamic creates a constructive balance between publishers and curators, where both sides must perform in order to maintain the relationship.

Benefits for Publishers

For publishers, curation services offer a welcome respite from the harsh reality of inventory commoditization and the buy side’s indifference to quality inventory. The old-guard of SSPs tried super-PMPs for aggregating across publisher supply, but those are fraught with quality issues and pricing challenges. Lately, new “SSPs” are springing eternal promising unique demand, but they’re often just thinly veneered shades of reselling.

However, this new form of curation service is healthier for publishers too. When used in conjunction with curation platforms, curation does not “resell” impressions nor are they syncing data into DSPs. That means no new ads.txt entries, a tidier supply chain and a more secure method of exposing audiences to DSPs. Ari Paparo of Marketecture makes some great arguments for how this improves, simplifies and reduces problems in the programmatic chain. As long as the value exchange is healthy, publishers can load up on curation houses.

Curation platforms are making a fast play for their futures here, and DSPs must be seeing the horsemen on the horizon. Sure they have been fortifying their walls with identity and contextual, but curation is a direct hit to their control of the decisioning layer. Media agencies will move closer to the audience source by working directly with Curation Houses, or even becoming one like MIQ’s Airgrid. Some DSPs could be relegated to the task of order-filling and programmatic payments. 

Looking Ahead

Perhaps the DSPs could defeat Curation Houses through acquisition or even by evolving to mimic them. I foresee publishers, especially larger ones, utilizing these new curation capabilities to remedy some programmatic ailments. Ultimately, however, most publishers will prefer to let a few trusted partners do the heavy lifting across data and representation.

Curation Houses are emerging as the newest programmatic power player, and may prove to be the savior of many publishers and SSPs alike. Marketers should also be excited, as they will discover enhanced performance, safer open web inventory, and maybe even some of that margin they have been missing.