IX Perspectives

From Billboards to Rose Petals: How Header Tag Offers Programmatic Buyers More Creative Freedom

woman in red dress and rose petals

Last Monday, the latest season of The Bachelorette premiered on ABC and 6.63 million viewers tuned in. Full disclosure, I was one of these viewers, and I foolishly didn’t realise the event was taking place until I was gripped by an impressive ad experience on the pages of a gossip and entertainment site.

The ad was impressive because of the creativity of its execution and its immersive nature. The ad experience was a half-page moving image of Jojo (our new Bachelorette) posing on the screen as she was showered by rose petals. The flurry of rose petals sprinkled down the left and right rails of the whole page until collecting in a pile on the bottom of the screen. The quality of the image and the ease with which the petals moved down the screen was what did it for me – it was a virtual reality ad experience with high production value and was an online display campaign. Who says online display can’t be awesome?

The online display can be awesome, but unfortunately, today most of the best creative experiences on display are sold direct, via insertion order. This means many of them aren’t targeted to a user which creates opportunities for waste. Plus, they’re likely a good deal more expensive than the programmatic equivalent, so advertisers end up spending more and spending on users who might not have much interest in the advertiser’s goods.

Luckily, the header tag alters the programmatic availability of high-impact spots, so that advertisers don’t have to rely on manual direct-sold agreements to run their most impressive and immersive ads.

Buyers Are Getting “The Good Stuff” Programmatically Through the Header

As more publishers begin to sell inventory through the header, the creative opportunities for advertisers buying in a real-time environment expand. In the waterfall, programmatic buyers secured lower-impact spots with less room for creativity, because the ‘good stuff’ would automatically go to direct buyers. Header tag opens all inventory to programmatic demand (often at a higher priority than the direct-marketplace), which means advertisers can secure high-impact placements programmatically.

Index Exchange has seen this trend bear out in exchange-wide data. Over time, the portion of buyers securing high-value inventory through the header has grown. For example:

  • More buyers secure larger creative canvases through header today. In June 2015, 23% of all spend on the 728 x 90 unit flowed through the header. The percentage has steadily risen over the year: in May 2016, we saw 68% of advertiser spend on this unit accrue in header tag markets. The story is the same for other high-impact spots: in the month of May 2016, 83% of advertiser spend on 300 x 600 unit cleared in header-tag auctions, compared to 48% in June 2015.
  • Buyers only have a programmatic chance for certain units in header-tag auctions. Certain units have always been more liquid in header-tag environments over tag-based. For example, from June 2015 to May 2016, 95% of spend on 970 x 250 unit cleared via the header. This suggests that programmatic advertisers’ best bet for securing a spot like that is to buy through the header. In a waterfall environment, such a unit may be perpetually sold to direct-buyers and never reaches the programmatic exchange.
Proportion of spend by integration type: 728 x 90 ad unit
Proportion of spend by integration type: 728 x 90 ad unit


Proportion of spend by integration type: 970 x 250 ad unit
Proportion of spend by integration type: 970 x 250 ad unit
Proportion of spend by integration type: 300 x  600 ad unit
Proportion of spend by integration type: 300 x 600 ad unit

Header Tag Offers Programmatic Buyers Creative Freedom – Here’s How to Take Advantage of It

The rise of header-based selling requires advertisers to reconsider the importance of digital display creative. Header underlies an infrastructure that will allow advertisers to achieve that programmatic promise of “right person, right ad, right time.” To explore the creative freedom that header tag affords, we recommend that advertisers:

  • Identify header-based sellers that prioritise programmatic demand ahead of direct-buyers. More and more publishers adopt header tag as the months go on. The growth within Index Exchange has been staggering – in May 2015, 100 publisher domains were selling through the header, and by May 2016, that number has grown to 1,038. They’re everywhere – it’s worth figuring out which publishers are selling this way and start considering unique header buying opportunities on these sites. Many of these publishers prioritise programmatic demand ahead of all else – this means programmatic demand has first right of refusal on all available spots.
  • Work with publishers to explore creative opportunities. Once an advertiser determines appropriate header partners, she should poke around into the creative opportunities that exist for ads on the sites. Ask publishers which type of units are typically reserved for direct-buys and if they would open that up to a real-time environment. Figure out if there is room for creative freedom and flexibility – perhaps you too will soon be able to digitally shower users with velvety rose petals.
  • Experiment with securing high-value creative spots via the header vs. via direct-buys. Now it’s time to test. We recommend running a traditional directly bought campaign with a header-based programmatic campaign at the same time. Evaluate how often you were able to secure high-impact positions via the header vs. direct and how the different types of buying methods compared. Compare pricing and identify instances of waste.

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