While it may not look like it from the outside, the digital advertising landscape is experiencing a tidal shift. Advances in technology, evolving consumer perspectives, and changing attitudes toward ownership structures are reforming the industry's traditional waters.

And it’s not just a wave; it’s a tsunami. Keeping your head above water isn’t enough anymore. You need to learn to surf or you might get swept away.

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Who are those currently caught in the roughest sea? It’s mainly mid-sized publishers who are too big to be niche but too niche to be giants. They exist in a space where passion meets pragmatism and, frankly, where the most exciting battles are being fought. Yet somehow, they’re the first to be left behind in the storm.

Many publishers are treading water, often caught up in the shifty currents of major sales houses with too-rigid systems, a dizzying checklist of must-have practices, and out-of-reach tech tools. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Success demands quality, transparency, and performance.

The right monetization strategy and partner can open up new doors for growth while leaving the decision-making power firmly in the publisher's hands. While some sales houses leave little room for experimentation, others live at the intersection of hyper-customizability and simplicity. 

To really understand the current state of things and dig into what it takes to make it as a mid-market publisher in this new world and compete toe-to-toe with the 800-pound gorillas of the content and publishing world, keep reading.

The Challenges Facing Mid-Market Publishers

As it stands now, big sales houses dominate. What about the market share for mid-market publishers? Well, it’s only shrinking.

According to Jounce Media, those top sales houses now control 25% of bid requests, which is more than double the percentage from 2022.

Jounce Media SPO Report-1

Image courtesy of Jounce Media SPO Report

This system is an exclusive club environment. Once you're in, you can access all the best parties. But for mid-market publishers, it's getting harder to even get invited, let alone compete on the dancefloor.

Further, those top sales houses in the 25% have deep pockets for tech investments that your average mid-market publishers can only dream of.

Sales houses also lead in areas like addressability solutions, price floor optimizations, and direct sales, giving them a monetization edge. Even with killer content, mid-market publishers are getting buried under the weight of sales house partnerships. It’s almost impossible to even have a voice in the room. 

On the other side of this issue are smaller publishers. More often than not, they’re happy to partner with the bigger sales houses, ironically unaware of how it contributes to the industry's growing challenges, ultimately squeezing mid-market publishers. 

As visualized in the graphic above, within that same Jounce Media SPO report, it was noted that the number of bid requests for those mid-sized publishers dropped from 55% to 36% over the past two years.

At this point, mid-sized publishers are left with a difficult choice. On one side are those major sales houses. Not all, but many of them don’t allow the kind of freedom of expression and creative direction an independent publisher might be comfortable with. On the other side? It’s a world filled with shifting best practices they’ll need to not only understand but implement successfully.

The reality is that those huge sales houses make the job of players up the chain (SSPs and DSPs) easier — hence their dominance in the industry.

But it’s not impossible to find your space as a mid-market publisher. And it’s not the case that every sales house plays by the same rigid rules. As I’ve mentioned, the right partner can help drive consistency and quality, and allow a level of customization, without taking mid-sized publishers out of the driver’s seat. 

How Mid-Market Publishers Can Fight Back

For mid-sized publishers, finding solid footing doesn’t mean just survival; it means flourishing. The mass-market game is rigged for the giants, but if you know your audience better than anyone else, you can build a fortress they can't touch.

Building a loyal, passionate readership within a niche has advantages that cannot be replaced, even if the audience size is smaller.

Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of building that fortress I mentioned. An engaged readership will only make you somewhat attractive to advertisers. You need to bring some civility to the chaos of the ad world. 

The programmatic landscape is currently a mess. It’s inefficient, with big names playing against each other and even themselves, all while hemorrhaging capital.

Those major sales houses? They’ve got the tools to streamline the process. For instance, traffic shaping and bid shading are all about efficiency, not just survival. These strategies streamline the ad buying process and improve ad inventory quality, but unfortunately, they’re not something every sales house is implementing (hint: Playwire sure is).

Publishers should adopt these practices to attract attention and avoid less-than-savory strategies like ad arbitrage and MFA websites — which can be a black mark on a publisher’s name.

Couple this with the death of third-party cookies, shifting perspectives on user privacy, and changes to privacy regulations, and the complex problem facing mid-sized publishers becomes even more difficult to solve.

It’s the publishers who stay proactive, and choose their partners carefully, that will come out on top.

The Future of Mid-Market Publishing

These mid-sized publishers need to find their voice. They need amplification.

If publishers aren’t looking in the right places, it can seem like the only option is to work with a sales house that treats their brand like a paycheck rather than a partner. This means playing by their rules, which is a harsh truth to swallow for a publisher with their unique way of doing things. These rigid structures often leave little room for experimentation and growth, which is essential to finding monetization strategies that work best for your business.

The road ahead is bumpy, no doubt. But, if mid-market publishers are known for anything, it's grit and ingenuity. Coincidentally, these are two words that Playwire has also become known for over the past two decades, working tirelessly to put the right tools at publishers’ fingertips while keeping the power of choice intact.

Whether it’s external pressure from privacy-minded users or seemingly existential threats from Google’s newest interface, Search-Generative Experience (SGE), publishers need to stay active in finding novel solutions to meet this list of growing challenges. 

Quality, transparency, and performance will be the new motto for success. If you want a seat at the table, you need to offer quality that stands out, not blends in. Playwire is all about bridging the gap between sales houses and publishers and creators looking to make it themselves.

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With the right tools and strategies, especially when it comes to a digital advertising landscape that is moving closer to a cookie-less future (though the end of third-party cookies was recently delayed further by Google) and with trends such as traffic shaping on the rise, mid-sized publishers can find their voice in the crowded digital advertising room. 

There’s simply no denying the position these publishers are in. Squeezed on both sides, their share of bids is shrinking. But it doesn't have to stay that way.

Reclaim your stake in the programmatic revenue pie by adapting to new innovative strategies, leveraging new tools, and staying a step ahead of the digital curve with the right partner.

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