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Key Industry Players


The Ecosystem

The digital landscape is a complex web of relationships, with the process eventually connecting the advertiser with the audience. The varying paths between the two often include hundreds or even thousands of touch points. To keep it simple, we can look at the ecosystem as two sides: Demand (the buy side) and Supply (the sell side).

Advertisers and agencies play the role of buyer, with publishers and their media playing the role of seller. In between the two, there are also several players who add value to or facilitate both sides, such as exchanges and data providers.

Digital Marketing Ecosystem Guide Brand Agency Publisher Ad Server Ad Network Ad Exchange Demand Side Platform DSP Supply Side Platform SSP


A company that pays to advertise a product or service. Proctor & Gamble, Unilver, L’Oreal, Volkswagen, and Comcast are a few of the biggest advertisers.


An agency offers digital marketing services to advertisers; some offer full-service approaches, while others focus on a specific area or sector. Some of the major agencies include WPP, Publicis, IPG, Havas, Omnicom, Dentsu Aegis.


Publishers are the distribution channels for media. Their digital inventory spans web, mobile, social, search, and video. Facebook, AOL, CBS, and Hearst are just a few of the most visited publishers.

Advertiser & Publisher Ad servers

Ad servers are tools that store advertisements and then push them to their designated place in a publisher’s inventory when the correct impression opportunity comes up. A publisher's ad server works to determine which advertiser their placement will be sold to. An advertiser's ad server then chooses which creative will be shown to the publisher’s audience. Both ad servers then record how many ads were served and how they performed, and aggregate user data to later share it.

Ad Networks

Publisher-advertiser relationships can be labor-intensive when it comes to buying and selling, so networks of relationships between the buy and sell side make the process easier and expose more inventory and purchasing opportunities. Networks generally focus on a select group of publishers, whether that be publishers in a certain sector, reaching a certain audience segment, or premium publishers looking for an extension of their sales team.

Ad Exchange

An ad exchange is a web of ad networks, enabling real-time bidding transactions through a single source. As the next evolution, most ad network inventory is also available through exchanges, but exchanges are noted to be more transparent to both publishers and advertisers, and inventory is often sold at a higher price per impression as advertisers are competing against each other.

DSP (Demand Side Platform)

A DSP is a platform that executes programmatic media buying - a form of buying in which inventory is purchased real-time to show one specific ad, to one consumer, in one individual context, including determining which media, how much to buy, and at what price. This means that ad placement is bought on an individual-impression basis, as opposed to being bought per thousand impressions (CPM). By doing so, advertisers are able to execute more granular targeting while also being able to scale in mass. The DSP algorithm automatically optimizes buying decisions to lower buying costs and maximize performance.

SSP (Supply Side Platform)

A Supply Side Platform serves a similar function to a DSP, but on the sell side: it is the platform publishers use to facilitate their real-time bidding (RTB), as well as some direct buys. Its goal is to help publishers maximize the prices their impressions sell for, whereas a DSP’s goal is to help advertisers purchase impressions more efficiently.

Private Marketplace (PMP)

An invitation-only marketplace that gives agency buyers access to premium inventory while using automated or programmatic buying methods to purchase faster, thus eliminating the RFP and negotiation process.

Trading Desks

A Trading Desk is the programmatic buying arm of an agency holding company, an independent company, or internal team of an agency that aggregates programmatic, auction-based inventory across various DSPs and ad exchanges. Recently, many organizations traditionally referred to as trading desks are now eschewing the term due to a trading desk’s frequent association with high margins and a lack of transparency.

Data Management Platform (DMP)

A data management platform stores, organizes, and analyzes first- and third- party data to better discover and reach target audiences; it then applies in-depth measurement to optimize media buying and creatives. DMPs originally started as an integrated layer with DSPs, but are now being offered as stand-alone data sources for both the buy and sell sides.


Working alongside all the players in the ecosystem, media management companies provide tools to manage campaigns; they work to automate every step of the advertising cycle, including planning, buying, analyzing, optimizing, and invoicing. These companies look to create a centralized hub for agencies, advertisers, and sellers to manage their business through a streamlined workflow powered by insightful data.


Measurement and analytics providers aggregate and organize data so that marketers can get a holistic view of the campaign metrics they care about most.


Data providers offer insight across the spectrum, from audience to pricing, so that marketers may make better decisions. Data is specifically used for targeting, segmentation, identification, verification, and more.


There are two main types of targeting – inventory targeting, which serves ads on sites that offer a specific type of content or are visited frequently by individuals within a particular demographic, and user targeting – which serves ads to individuals who have exhibited a particular behavior or interest.

Related Links


Digital advertising terms don't have to be overwhelming. Check out our digital glossary to quickly look-up important definitions.

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