Why Do Publishers and Marketers Have Separate Ad Servers?

At first glance it might seem confusing why Publishers and Marketers both maintain their own Ad Servers. After all, what’s the point of forcing a browser to make so many trips across the internet, bouncing from Ad Server to Ad Server when technically all you need is a single Ad Server to deliver an ad?

The answer is mostly convenience, but also so Marketers and Publishers can audit each other when it comes time to bill.

Ad Servers are convenient because they allow Publishers and Marketers to centralize the nuts and bolts of getting an ad on a web page. If a Marketer bought media across ten different sites for example, without and ad server every time they wanted to change their creative assets they would have to talk to ten different publishers. Not only that, but when it came time to report on how well their campaigns did, they would have to compile ten different data sources into a single report. For a sophisticated marketer advertising multiple products to multiple audiences with multiple messages, this quickly becomes unmanageable and is distasteful from the start.

However, with an Ad Server, a Marketer can update their creative in a single place, whenever they want, and do so without needing to contact a publisher. Moreover, they can pull reporting on-demand from one place that uses the same tracking methodology.

Publishers maintain an Ad Server for the same reasons – they have multiple clients running multiple creatives for varying amounts and with different targeting requirements. Publishers also want a single source for reporting, and where they can efficiently track that they are delivering on schedule so they can bill clients in full.

Lastly, separate Ad Servers allow both parties to maintain their own independent set of reports. This forces both parties to rely on the technology when it comes time to bill rather than each others honesty. Of course, using two Ad Server that count at different times, even milliseconds apart creates the possibility for Ad Serving Discrepancies, the bane of Publishers and Marketers alike.


  1. I’ve been confused about this for a long time – who is a publisher, who is an advertiser, and who is the marketer here?


  2. Hi Sankar,

    A publisher is a content producer or owner. In most cases, you can consider the website owner a publisher. NYTimes.com is a publisher, CNN is a publisher, AdOpsInsider.com is a (lowly) publisher. Advertisers and Marketers are essentially interchangeable terms. Advertisers and Marketers are the people who have a product to promote or sell, and they promote that product through advertising to the audience that the publisher aggregates. You can think of Nike, Coca-Cola, and Verizon as common advertisers.

    I hope that clarifies –


  3. Hi Ben,

    I have a query regarding Ad-Serving. Do all publishers rely on ad-servers. If so who are ‘third-party’ ad-servers. Are they the same ‘ad-servers’ publishers rely on for regular serving of ads?
    When I was interning at a media agency, I had seen digital plans that had budgets allocated for publishers and separate amounts dedicated for third party ad-serving. Now, if each publisher did rely on a a ad-server which can provide details regarding the ads being served, then why do we need another ‘third party’ ad serving?

    Hope my question is clear enough to you, for an answer. Hope you could help clarify.


  4. Hi Anish,

    Yes, most publishers that sell advertising do use some kind of ad server. Small, independent publishers may just sell all their inventory to an ad network or simply run AdSense, in which case they can hard code the tag to that one party on their page, but if the publisher has to rotate different ads, or manage various campaigns that have their own flight dates, impression goals, etc, they will most certainly need and use an ad server.

    To your question of third-party ad serving, that’s typically the relationship both the marketer and the publisher have with their ad servers, because they don’t own it, but contract with a separate company for their ad serving needs. That company is a third party relationship in the contract between the publisher and marketer. So yes, they are the same ad servers the marketers and publishers use to serve their ads. Think of it this way – if you work at a publisher, you are the 1st party, the marketer you sell advertising to is your 2nd party, and the marketer’s ad server is the 3rd party. If on the other hand, you work at an agency, you, the agency are now the 1st party, the publisher who you buy advertising from is the 2nd party, and the publisher’s ad server is the 3rd party. In practice, 3rd party ad serving just means, “the client’s ad server”, or the ad server your ad server has to cal to fetch the final ad. Third party ad serving contrasts with local ad serving where the publisher would just get the raw ad creative, a gif / jpeg file or etc., and traffic that directly in their ad server, which could serve the final ad to a user, without needing to redirect to a separate ad server.

    As to your final question around cost, usually ad serving fees are quite small for most situations, but there are cases where a marketer wants to run more complex ad creative, or rich media as it’s better known, which comes with significantly higher fees. In fact, in many cases, these rich media vendors are considered a fourth party in the chain of events, where the publisher’s ad server (1st party) redirects to the marketer’s ad server (3rd party), which then redirects to the rich media vendor (4th party) to get the final ad. In each hop, an impression is counted in each server, but usually because of latency concerns, publishers insist on billing off 3rd party counts, and not the rich media vendor’s reports. To put the cost in context, while ad servers might change $0.05 CPM (and typically much less for high volume contracts), rich media vendors often charge $1.00+ CPMs to utilize their technology, which is what powers expanding ads, interactive ads with video & audio, and high impact creative like that.

    Hope that answers your questions!


  5. Ben,

    I run a financial news website targeting US audience. I want to monetize the traffic. I have around 50,000 uniques per month. Can you please suggest me a good ad network or any advertiser who would like to place ads on my site?

    Best Regards,


  6. Hi Pete,

    I actually just wrote a series of posts for my column at Run Of Network on this topic – you might find them helpful in generating some ideas for revenue streams:

    Data Selling & Match Services: http://runofnetwork.adzerk.com/adops/publisher-monetization-data-selling-match-services/
    Affiliate Programs & eCommerce Solutions: http://runofnetwork.adzerk.com/adops/publisher-monetization-affiliate-programs-ecommerce-solutions/
    Premium Content Services: http://runofnetwork.adzerk.com/adops/publisher-monetization-premium-content-services/

    The finance vertical is a particularly high value category, so there are a variety of sites out there that you could look to emulate in terms of monetization. I’ve seen a number of finance sites do well with a Premium Content model – notably on Fool.com and TheStreet.com, but plenty of other smaller sites seem to use that model as well.

    And not to keep plugging RON, but they also have a listing of some of the top Financial Ad Networks in the space that you might find helpful: http://runofnetwork.adzerk.com/verticaladnetwork/top-business-and-financial-vertical-ad-networks/

    Hope that helps –

  7. Thanks for your awesome articles!
    I have a question. Is it required that the Publisher Ad Server and Advertiser Ad Server to be the same 3rd party? Technically when the Publisher Ad Server processes and makes decisions of what Ads to serve it needs to know what it has on the bid system right?


  8. Hi KA,

    It is not required that the publisher’s ad server and the advertiser’s ad server be the same – in fact, many companies only service one or the other. The notable exception would be DoubleClick, which has both the leading publisher ad server (Dart for Publishers or DFP), as well as the leading advertiser ad server (Dart for Advertisers or DFA). One of the benefits of serving DFA tags in a DFP system is that DoubleClick reconciles 3rd party tracking on their back end, so there is no 3rd party discrepancy.

    Based on your last statement though, I’m not sure if your question was more around RTB, or ad selection in general? The publisher ad server does need to know all the active campaigns it could potentially serve, but those are usually separate items that the publisher sets up in their ad server. Meaning, the publisher could theoretically take the same advertiser ad tag, and assign it to multiple campaigns on their side. This would create a many to one relationship of campaigns to advertiser tag, and often happens based on how the publisher has built products on their side. In terms of RTB, there could be one or many campaigns the publisher might setup on their side that would “serve” a redirect to the exchange auction environment. That is, instead of serving a redirect to an advertiser’s 3rd party server, the redirect would be to an SSP, or Ad Exchange system that would facilitate other parties like DSPs bidding on that publisher’s impression. The publisher would not need to know about all of those bidders or the campaigns they were running, they just have to have a single tag to redirect to the ad exchange’s ecosystem.

    Hope that makes sense –


  9. @admin yeah it totally makes sense. We are implementing an internal Ad system for an emerging market and your posts help us a lot.

    Thanks for your great work.

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