Key Points

  • An ad network is a mostly outdated business model in which third-party companies would purchase unsold ad inventory from publishers, typically for a flat fee. The ad networks then packaged that inventory and sold it to advertisers at a higher price.
  • There’s little room in the 2024 ad tech ecosystem for traditional ad networks. However, many platforms still include advertising network features within their larger solutions.
  • A common misconception is that many publishers think they want an ad network when what they’re really looking for is an ad monetization platform like Playwire.

Do ad networks have a place in the ad tech landscape in 2024?

If you wanted a short answer to this question, here it is: not really.

Ad networks once played a critical supporting role in the ad tech landscape. They were superstars during the dot com boom, supporting publishers by purchasing their unsold inventory and improving their fill rate.

These days, however, the role ad networks play is more like a villain's henchman: shady and replaceable.

Everyone knows the digital advertising space is constantly changing. In the early days, there was little transparency, but now the demand for pricing visibility has rendered the ad network business model obsolete.

Still, their legacy remains in some ways. And many of the largest ad tech providers have ad network functionalities rolled into their solutions. So, like all things in ad tech, the answer to what role they play in the landscape is…it’s complicated.

Luckily, we’re here to spell it out for you.

In this article, we’ll break down the basics of what an ad network is and where they fit into the ad tech landscape in 2024. Keep reading to learn more.

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What is an Ad Network?

Because so few exist as standalone solutions these days, it’s not easy to define what an ad network is.

Originally, advertising networks were businesses that purchased unsold ad inventory from publishers to repackage and sell to advertisers at a higher rate.

In the early days of the digital advertising industry, these ad networks provided a valuable service to both publishers and advertisers. For publishers, ad networks improved fill rate by purchasing unsold inventory in bulk. For advertisers, they provided more opportunities to reach valuable audiences.

The business model worked well before the increasing demand for pricing transparency emerged. This happened in tandem with the rising popularity of programmatic advertising trade methods, so no coincidence there.

The difference between ad networks and these newer models or tools, like header bidding and ad exchanges, is that ad networks are and always have been a black box for both publishers and advertisers. 

Ad networks purchase inventory from publishers for a flat rate or pre-determined ad revenue share, then resell the inventory in marked-up packages to advertisers. This means publishers aren’t aware of how much the advertiser is paying for their units. And the advertiser is equally unaware of the initial value of the units they are purchasing.

This is great for the ad network, which profits more the greater the margin between those two figures. But can you blame advertisers and publishers for seeking out more transparent alternatives?

Where Do Ad Networks Fit in the 2024 Ad Tech Landscape?

For the most part, they don’t.

These days, transparency is one of the most important features, no matter where you slot in within the ad tech ecosystem, so current common practices favor options that clearly state the value of ad units and the revenue share being subtracted from each click.

The lack of transparency provided by ad networks has actually earned them a reputation in the industry. Many people believe the business practices to be shady. And it makes sense since the markups are quite literally hidden in the shadows.

That’s not to say that ad networks didn’t add value for advertisers, though. Many repackaged ad inventory to provide advertisers with advanced targeting capabilities as well as other benefits that they use to justify their markups.

Still, the lack of existing standalone ad networks proves that added value just wasn’t enough. Especially as programmatic advertising trade methods gained more advanced targeting capabilities as well.

Mobile ad networks for apps

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. 

If it was simple, it wouldn’t be ad tech. 

The mobile app monetization industry is the only place where ad networks still play a vital role. App mediation platforms and SDKs like Chartboost and Liftoff provide ad exchanges — which are different from ad networks — as well as sales teams that function in much the same way as ad networks.

The mobile ad monetization industry is still waterfall-based, meaning developers sell ad inventory to ad networks one at a time in a succession that is predetermined by the seller.


These mobile ad networks have a high degree of incentive to purchase ad units at low rates to sell custom packages to advertisers at the highest CPM rates possible.

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Playwire: The Best Ad Network and Much, Much More

So, as a publisher, do you need an advertising network as a part of your tech stack? The answer is a strong… probably.

At least, you’ll likely be including a few ad network types in your stack. For desktop publishers, the built-in options in your existing SSP might suffice. 

Honestly, there’s no cut-and-dry answer. The only sure thing in the digital advertising landscape is that it will be confusing and continue to evolve.

Luckily, we’re here to simplify it for you and keep you up-to-date the moment something changes.

Often, publishers who work with us start out thinking they need an ad network when what they really need is an ad monetization partner, or an all-in-one solution that streamlines the monetization process and makes maximizing yield and amplifying your ad revenue easy.

Sounds too good to be true? 

We understand if you’re skeptical. But take a look at some of our case studies and you’ll see for yourself.

We make monetizing your site or app simple. Contact us today to get started.

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