The IAB and Bain & Company announced the release of a benchmark study which suggests that online publishers are increasingly turning to sales intermediaries known as ad networks to sell off excess inventories. The use of “ad networks” surged from 5% of total ad impressions sold in 2006 to 30% in 2007, according to the newly released “Digital Pricing Benchmarking Study” from Bain, the global business consulting firm, conducted in coordination with the Interactive Advertising Bureau.

As online publishers continue to experience growth rates of 20-30% in ad revenue, the race to create new advertising opportunities has left publishers with an excess of inventory which they are selling through ad networks at up to 90% discounts versus direct sales rates. The study finds the trend particularly foreboding for branded online publishers who traditionally earn between $10-20 CPM (the industry term for the cost per 1,000 ad impressions advertisers pay) and therefore risk severe price erosion.

“Online publishers are producing more inventory than the market demands, and risk devaluing the premium nature of their brands, particularly in light of ad networks growth and their dramatically lower pricing,” said John Frelinghuysen, a partner in Bain’s Global Media Practice and study author. “Building more effective relationships between publishers and ad networks is critical. In the longer-term, both parties will benefit from gains in ad network CPMs.”

The reason for the rapid growth in the use of ad networks is two-fold:

• Interviews with online publishers, conducted as part of the study, indicate that the lack of adequate pricing tools and inventory management discipline contributed to the growth in available ad space. This is causing publishers to seek out ways to sell large inventories of unsold ads. Publishers often lack basic information on realized prices and inventory sold by client and channel, limiting management’s ability to make effective decisions.

• Large marketers continue to shift significant portions of their advertising budgets online and view ad networks as an effective way to achieve greater buying scale and drive down CPMs.

“What this benchmark study tells the industry is that there is a need for more sophisticated yield management on the part of premium publishers, for stronger partnerships between publishers and ad networks, for development of best practices, and more focus on the value of interactive advertising.” said Sherrill Mane, senior vice president, Industry Services of the IAB. “Our industry is at an important juncture and now is the time for publishers to adopt strategic approaches to the use of ad networks who themselves have become critical players in the digital ecosystem.”

Another important finding of the study is that publishers who actively manage and use multiple ad networks can achieve higher revenues on display ads sold via networks. The benchmarking study finds publishers vary in their adoption of ad networks, the approaches used and the results attained but overall finds that the keys for success for online publishers are having dedicated staff, better tools and metrics that allow constant vigilance in managing ad pricing, reported sell rates and channel conflicts.

The authors of the benchmarking study offer recommendations to both publishers and ad networks to pursue steps toward higher realized pricing and enhancing mutual benefits of collaboration. These include:

• Publishers must become more disciplined in managing ad inventory and deploy improved methods and tools to enhance yield management

• Ad networks should partner more closely with publishers to enhance the value of the relationship for both parties.

Other key findings from the benchmarking study include:

• Overall, online publisher revenues grew by a healthy 32% in 2007 versus 2006, yet ad network revenues grew more rapidly (in excess of 50%), as marketers boosted online spending.

• High demand for premium video inventory resulted in CPMs 2-3 times greater than display ads on average.

• Most publishers in the study lack information to closely measure the impact of cross-platform sales, though most indicate focus on using cross-platform to drive volume, not price.

The Digital Pricing Study was developed as a benchmark to explore the impact of online ad intermediaries on ad rates, profitability and ad inventory management for media companies (publishers). The study methodology included executive interviews and in-depth analysis of proprietary company data, including direct, ad network and cross-platform sales, pricing (CPMs) and impressions volume for seven leading online media publishers. The selection criteria included having leading brands, publishing premium content, and selling advertising on a national basis. To view the complete study, please go to