Ad Networks vs Ad Exchanges: The History of Programmatic Advertising

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When discussing digital advertising, there are two types of platforms situated at the center of it all: ad networks and ad exchanges.

One step away from the center are DSPs (demand side platforms) and SSPs (supply or “sell” side platforms) which allow advertisers and publishers (respectively) to conduct ad transactions (referred to as “digital media buying”) through automated auctions.

But what’s the difference between an ad network and an ad exchange – and how exactly do DSPs and SSPs connect to ad networks and ad exchanges?

This guide aims to untangle these concepts within the digital advertising ecosystem.

Table of Contents


What is an Ad Network? (The Short Version)

An ad network is a human owned and operated intermediary that facilitates the transaction of media (ad) buying and selling between publishers and advertisers.

Ad networks typically focus on categorizing and selling large volumes of ad impressions to advertisers through manually negotiated sales packages.

Three simple ways to tell an ad network apart from an ad exchange:

  • Ad networks are companies. They involve human business operations.
  • Publishers “join” ad networks.
  • Advertisers (traditionally and typically) negotiate deals manually with ad networks.

What is an Ad Exchange? (The Short Version)

An ad exchange is a technology platform that serves as an open marketplace for publishers, advertisers, and other parties to list, sell, and buy ads on an impression-by-impression basis through automated auctions.

Ad exchanges focus on providing publishers and advertisers with a high level of control and transparency into the process of selling and buying ad impressions reliably through automation.

Three simple ways to tell an ad exchange apart from an ad network:

  • Ad exchanges are technology platforms. They facilitate their services automatically.
  • Both publishers and advertisers use ad exchanges to either sell or buy ads.
  • Ad exchanges sell ads automatically on an impression-by-impression basis, not in bulk.

The stock market is a very common analogy that’s often used to compare ad networks and ad exchanges.

Ad networks act in a similar way to stock brokers – assisting advertisers with their purchasing process by grouping ad inventory together into categorized, bulk-impression packages.

Ad exchanges act in a similar way to the stock market itself – an open marketplace where anyone can list, sell, and buy ad impressions without the need for an intermediary party.

However, this analogy alone does little to clarify the different advantages each platform can offer – and certainly, it isn’t helpful to evoke the imagery of something as perplexing as the stock market when discussing an already complicated topic, like adtech.

So, if there’s still an air of confusion surrounding ad networks and ad exchanges at this point, that’s completely understandable.

On the surface, it may seem like ad exchanges are preferable out of the two options.

But in reality, both publishers and advertisers still use the two platforms for different reasons.

To really gain an in-depth understanding of why, it’s easiest to explore the history behind both platforms, to understand the problems they were originally trying to solve.


The Evolution of Ad Networks vs Ad Exchanges (A Practical History of Programmatic Advertising)

It may seem irrelevant to jump all the way back to 1994 to begin a conversation about the differences between ad networks and ad exchanges – why can’t we just have a straight answer?

The thing is, digital advertising is a complicated and ancient beast, to say the least – especially when programmatic advertising (the technology the “drives” ad exchanges) is involved.

One might even equate programmatic advertising to a hydra – a creature with multiple heads, which, when failing to remove all of the heads at once (through a single, calculated strike of educational comprehension), will simply sprout a plague of additional heads (adtech related questions) against which to contend your patience (and sanity).

The simplest and most direct way to understand the difference between ad networks and ad exchanges is to learn about their origins – during a time when their functionalities and purposes were singular, well defined, and easiest to understand.


A Simpler Time for Digital Advertising – 1994

In the beginning – long before the spirited days of Numa Numa in 2004 and even before the rising popularity of the fabled hamster dance in 2000, the first commercial web browser, Netscape Navigator, was released for public use on October 13th, 1994.

Not a full month after Netscape’s release, the first web banner ad (a replica of which can be seen here) was sold to AT&T and featured in the first issue of the world’s first commercial online magazine, Hotwired – published on October 27th, 1994.

This was the very first example of a direct deal taking place in digital advertising – a type of “digital media buying” (aka “ad buying”) arrangement in which an advertiser (AT&T) made an agreement with a publisher (Hotwired) to purchase their ad inventory (or “ad space”) from within their online publication.

Simple, right? But – there was still room for improvement.

Not long after the first direct deal took place, a method for more effectively conducting direct deals between advertisers and publishers, called an IO (Insertion Order), was introduced.

An IO was (and still is) simply a document which describes the terms and conditions through which ads will be delivered within a campaign – a sort of “ad campaign roadmap” that ensures all of the involved parties understand all of the components of the agreement.

With the addition of IOs into the process, advertisers would send their ad creatives (media assets such as images, videos, and audio) to publishers – who would then manually upload the ad creatives to be featured within their website’s ad space, according to the details found in the IO.

Simple, right? But – there was still room for improvement.


Enter Ad Servers – 1995 / 1996

The advent of ad servers brought about major improvements and innovations to the way advertisers and publishers worked together and paved the way for modern ad serving.

But it also added an extra layer of complexity and confusion that still exists today in adtech.

The source of confusion can be traced back to the fact that not one, but two types of ad servers were developed at around the same time:

  • The first type of ad server, a “central” ad server – was released by FocalLink Media Services on July 17th, 1995.
    • A “central” ad server was also sometimes referred to as a “remote” ad server, and is referred to as a “third-party” ad server in modern digital advertising.
    • This naming convention is still used today whenever an ad server is owned and operated by anyone except a publisher.
      • The naming convention was developed because traditionally, the publisher was considered the “first-party” owner of their own website, their ad inventory (or “ad space”), and was manually receiving and uploading ads from their “third-party” advertising partners.
      • Additionally, the term “third-party” is also used to define all components of the buying/demand/advertiser side of digital advertising.
    • The purpose of the central ad server type was for a third-party to be able to assist in the process of organizing and serving ads to multiple websites owned by different publishers – a task which was increasingly difficult to manage manually by advertisers who wanted to work with multiple website publishers.
  • The second type of ad server, a “local” ad server – was released by NetGravity on January 31st, 1996.
    • A “local” ad server is referred to as a “first-party” ad server in modern digital advertising.
    • This naming convention is still used today whenever an ad server is owned and operated directly by a publisher.
      • Again, this naming convention was developed because the publisher was (and still is) considered the “first-party” as the website owner and supplier of ad inventory in the digital advertising ecosystem.
      • Additionally, the term “first-party” is also used to define all components of the selling/supplying/publisher side of digital advertising.
    • The purpose of the local ad server type was for publishers to be able to receive and manage ad creatives received from multiple advertisers in a more effective and organised way than they had previously been able to.
      • As an extra information tidbit – NetGravity was eventually purchased by DoubleClick in 1999 – with DoubleClick eventually being purchased by Google in 2008.

Despite being intended for use by different parties – the objective of both ad server types was the same – to increase the level of efficiency at which ad deals could be struck by improving upon the IO method (IOs were, and still are, used alongside ad servers).

To accomplish this objective, ad servers introduced new features which, at the time, were groundbreaking advancements – presenting users with a new way to:

  • Send, store, and manage ad creatives associated with ad campaigns
  • Monitor campaign performance metrics
  • Track the impressions, clicks, and follow-up actions of served ads
  • More effectively manage the available ad space on their websites
  • Define ad serving rules through ad targeting options (not all of which were available in the earliest iterations of ad server technology):
    • Contextual (placing ads based on semantically related keywords)
    • Geographic (serving certain ads to users based on their location)
    • Dayparting (scheduling certain ads to display on different days / times)
    • Behavioral (users who have demonstrated interest in similar niche websites)

The original concept of a direct deal had already been improved upon once with the introduction of IOs.

Now, both publishers (with first-party ad servers) and advertisers (with third-party ad servers) were equipped with new ad serving tools, meaning they could send, store, and manage their ad creatives and campaigns with even higher efficiency.

Simple, right? But – there was still room for improvement.


Enter Ad Networks – 1996

As alluded to by the introduction of third-party ad servers in 1995, advertisers had quickly developed a growing hunger to work with multiple website publishers at the same time.

The feeling was mutual, as publishers wanted to work multiple advertising parties.

However, even with the added conveniences offered by ad servers, the process of managing multiple business relationships was a time consuming and cumbersome task.

When the logistics involved in creating just one, single direct advertising deal and IO were considered, the entire process became unwieldy when the scope of managing dozens of business relationships between individual publishers and advertisers was fully realised.

The scope of work for managing publisher and advertisers relationships was so great, in fact, that it generated a need for an entirely new type of business – one focused exclusively on managing the business relationship aspect of digital advertising.

Ad networks became a new addition to the digital advertising ecosystem.

The value proposition was simple.

Rather than having thousands of individual advertisers working out ad deals with thousands of individual publishers, ad networks allowed advertisers and publishers to streamline all of their communications and relationship building through a single company.

Ad networks also began making use of their own third-party ad servers to begin managing ad creatives and even entire ad campaigns on behalf of the advertisers they worked with.

Some examples of the earliest ad network companies include:

  • WebConnect (Founded in 1993 – it eventually became the world’s first ad network)
  • Ad.com (Founded in 1994)
  • DoubleClick (Founded in 1996)

Traditional advertising practices were no stranger to intermediaries, and with the introduction of ad networks, digital advertising saw an intermediary party come between the ad serving processes of publishers and advertisers for the first time.

While there were new fees to be incurred by advertisers for the convenience that these platforms offered, the benefits justified the price – as advertisers were now able to:

  • Drastically reduce time spent on business relationship building and negotiations
  • Target ads to a wide range of categorized inventory from many different publishers
  • Receive advanced ad metric insights, beyond the capability of ad servers alone

Publishers also saw a benefit from the introduction of ad networks, as small to medium sized publishers were now able to establish relationships and sell their ad inventory to much larger advertisers who were typically more difficult to contact and negotiate with directly.

From direct deals, to the introduction of IOs, and eventually ad servers – digital advertising had advanced once more, now offering a way for advertisers and publishers to work together at scale through the intermediary services offered by ad network platforms.

Simple, right? But, you guessed it…

…there was still room for improvement.


Enter Ad Exchanges – 2005

Up until this point, the roles that various advertising parties and ad technologies played within the ecosystem were effective at addressing the problems they were created to solve.

However, a recurring problem was realised on the supply side of the digital advertising ecosystem – publishers were still having trouble selling their remnant ad inventory.

While ad networks were originally created in part to help solve this problem, as more websites came online, the manual nature of selling ads, even with the assistance of ad networks, was cumbersome enough to leave many publishers with unsold ad space.

It was realised that, in order to advance digital advertising further, automation was required to alleviate the burden of manually connecting advertisers to their desired ad sources.

Ad exchanges became a new addition to the digital advertising ecosystem.

Ad exchanges are a component which can be identified as the primary source of complexity and confusion that surrounds adtech to this day – though they were simple, in the beginning.

While OpenX eventually became one of the most popular modern ad exchanges, it wasn’t originally focused on this service offering. OpenX began development as an open source ad server project in 1998, but it wasn’t until 2005 that ad exchanges began truly making impactful developments that met the needs of the industry, gaining widespread acceptance and usage (OpenX would later pivot into the ad exchange business in the late 2000s).

The full logistical and business history of ad exchanges, which involved significant programming developments by Right Media, resulted in the creation of a new piece of adtech that was capable of streamlining all of the existing advertising parties within the ecosystem into an automated, open marketplace for buying and selling digital ads.

Similar to how advertising networks streamlined advertiser and publisher relationships, ad exchanges now offered a streamlined platform for advertisers, publishers, ad networks, and other parties to interconnect their ad serving technologies with the added efficiency of automation.

Two fundamental differences could already be distinguished between ad networks and ad exchanges from the onset of this new introduction:

  • Ad networks were (and still are) companies operated manually, by people
  • Ad networks were (and still are) considered “intermediaries” in the ad ecosystem
  • Ad exchanges were (and still are) fully automated technology platforms
  • Ad exchanges were (and still are) considered “non-intermediary” open marketplaces

Another fundamental advantage of ad exchanges over ad networks was accessibility.

While ad networks typically had (sometimes strict) requirements publishers had to qualify for, ad exchanges allowed a wider range of websites to participate within the ecosystem – providing easier access for publishers, and more website targeting options for advertisers.

Ad exchanges also avoided the perceived disadvantage of lacking transparency in advertising costs paid by advertisers through their interactions with ad networks.

While ad networks operated by charging a markup fee on publisher inventory (an amount which was not discernible from the total cost to advertisers), ad exchanges offered straightforward impression costs, and budget capping options for advertisers to use. 

Some examples of the earliest ad exchanges include:

  • RightMedia (Founded in 2003 – it eventually became the world’s first ad exchange)
  • DoubleClick Ad Exchange (DoubleClick was acquired by Google in 2007. It began as an ad exchange, eventually evolving to integrate with Google’s multiple ad networks.)
  • OpenX (Began as “PHP Ads” in 1998, Rebranded to “OpenAds” in 2007, and finally rebranded and was considered “refounded” as “OpenX” in 2008)

Ad exchanges introduced the concept of programmatic advertising to the online ad world.

The term “programmatic” is synonymous with “automatic”, or in other words, some people describe it simply as “using machines to manage the purchasing of digital advertising”.

Ad exchanges also introduced a new control option for advertisers called “frequency capping”, which allowed advertising parties to set a limit on how many times a single ad creative would be shown to a single user.

As complicated as the methodology had become to accomplish it, the objectives of ad exchanges were clear:

  • To assist publishers in selling their remnant inventory automatically (or in other words, their leftover “non-premium” inventory from direct deals with advertisers, which was still the most lucrative and preferred method of selling ad space) 
  • To provide advertisers with more control over their ad campaign targeting options and increasing audience reach through publisher accessibility

Simple, right? But it must not come as a surprise by now…

… that there was STILL room for improvement.


Enter DSPs and SSPs – 2007

Fortunately, when compared to the leap in technology introduced by ad exchanges, DSPs and SSPs weren’t looking to reinvent the digital advertising wheel.

DSP stands for “demand side platform”. It was (and still is) an interface that was developed for use by advertisers to gain more control over their interactions with ad exchanges, and to help them get the most value from programmatic advertising processes.

SSP stands for “supply side platform”. It was (and still is) an interface developed for use by publishers to more easily connect their available ad inventory to ad exchanges, and to optimise the ad revenue they were capable of generating from remnant ad inventory.

DSPs and SSPs both aimed to simplify advertiser and publisher interactions with the complicated (and evolving) programmatic ecosystem introduced by ad exchanges, while further optimising the revenue potential that both sides were capable of generating.

Analogies become useful for describing various components of adtech at this point in its evolution, and there are two ways of interpreting the new advantages that DSPs and SSPs brought to the table.


The first analogy is interpreting DSPs and SSPs as “sales representatives” that act on behalf of publishers and advertisers when engaging in programmatic auctions.

By this point, the algorithms being used by ad exchanges to execute programmatic auctions were growing increasingly complex.

Similar to how buyers and sellers of real-estate might hire knowledgeable representatives who understand the market to assist them in their decision making processes, DSPs and SSPs acted on behalf of advertiser and publisher “clients” (respectively) to help “navigate” the complicated programmatic algorithms being used to conduct the bidding processes.

In the process, advertisers secured the lowest possible prices for their advertisement placements, and publishers generated the highest possible revenue for their ad space.


The second analogy is interpreting DSPs and SSPs as “car dashboards” that analyse the complex inner workings of a car engine, returning and displaying useful and easily readable information.

Throughout the evolution of digital advertising, transparency into ad and campaign performance was consistently something that all involved parties sought to improve.

With the introduction of DSPs and SSPs, both advertisers and publishers now had dedicated interfaces which could interpret the processes taking place “under the hood” of the ad exchanges, and review relevant information that would assist them in further optimising their revenue.


It’s important to note that, while very similar in nature, DSPs and SSPs have a few distinctions, and aren’t 100% “mirrors” of one another on the advertiser and publisher sides.

This has proven to be increasingly the case as programmatic technologies have evolved – and this table highlights some of the intricate differences between how DSPs and SSPs connect advertisers and publishers to programmatic ecosystems in modern times.

Demand-Side PlatformSupply-Side Platform
Used ByAdvertisersPublishers
Owned and Operated By• DSP Service Providers

(In most cases, advertisers log into and interact with service-owned DSPs when purchasing inventory programmatically. These DSPs are pre-configured and pre-connected to multiple programmatic supply sources, such as ad exchanges and publisher-owned SSPs.)

• Larger Advertisers, Sometimes

(Sometimes, larger advertisers invest in creating their own DSP. The benefit of an advertiser owning their own DSP is being able to integrate it with SSPs that are owned and operated by publishers, connecting directly with them and bypassing interactions with ad networks and exchanges.)

(In some cases large advertisers may use both their own DSP, and one or more DSP interfaces operated by ad exchanges.)
• SSP Service Providers

(Similar to how advertisers might log into a service-owned DSP, a publisher may choose the simple option of working with a pre-existing SSP service that’s pre-configured and pre-connected to multiple programmatic demand sources.)

• Larger Publishers, Sometimes

(Sometimes, larger publishers invest in creating their own SSP, and building direct integrations with advertiser-owned DSPs. This allows the publisher to conduct programmatic ad selling without relying on ad networks or exchanges – though these two demand sources are often still connected with as “secondary” sources for selling remnant ad inventory impressions reliably.)

(In some cases, large publishers may use both their own SSP, and SSPs owned by SSP service providers.)
Connects To• Ad Exchanges
• SSPs

(DSP interfaces are rarely offered by ad networks, and advertiser-owned DSPs rarely interact with ad networks. This is because negotiating and purchasing ad inventory from ad networks is typically managed through a manual sales process.)
• Ad Exchanges
• Ad Networks
• DSPs


(SSPs connect to ad networks, because in modern digital advertising, ad networks sometimes bundle and offer a portion of a publisher’s inventory as programmatic ad impressions into their sales packages.)

Some examples of popular DSPs include:


Some examples of popular SSPs include:

While the functionalities of DSPs and SSPs are well defined, in modern programmatic advertising, there are no strict “boundaries” on what a DSP or an SSP can and can’t connect to.

There are many bespoke DSP and SSP solutions which allow advertisers and publishers to connect to just about any part of the programmatic ecosystem that they need to interact with.

More information about DSPs vs SSPs, and the various adtech components they connect to and interact with are detailed in this resource guide.

It’s safe to say that these platforms were a far stride from the early days of direct ad deals.

However…

… yes, indeed…

… there was still room for improvement.


Enter RTB (Real-Time Bidding) and The Shifting Role of Ad Networks – 2009/2011

Up until this point, while ad exchanges had revolutionized digital advertising by introducing the concept of programmatic ad buying, the scope of programmatic functionality was limited.

Traditionally, ad exchanges forced advertisers to purchase ad impressions in bulk at a fixed price, despite the value of different ad space being worth more or less to certain advertisers.

This similarly meant that publishers were losing potential ad revenue from advertisers who were willing to pay more for their ad inventory, based on their niche and ad slot quality.

These shortcomings would be addressed in 2009, when ad exchange technology introduced a new type of programmatic auctioning system called RTB (real-time bidding).

  • RTB was the first of many different types of programmatic bidding models, which allowed publishers to sell their remnant ad inventory on an impression-by-impression basis to advertisers that were connected to the ad exchange.
    • This was accomplished by allowing multiple advertisers to automatically (and nearly instantaneously) place an algorithmic bid against each other whenever a publisher’s ad space became available to display an ad to a visitor.
    • The highest automated bid amongst advertisers would display the winning advertiser’s ad to the user that was visiting the publisher’s website.
    • While many other different types of programmatic bidding were later developed, they won’t be covered in this particular guide, as they aren’t required for distinguishing the difference between ad networks and ad exchanges (which can already be complicated enough as it is!).

With the introduction of RTB, advertisers and publishers were now able to automatically buy and sell ad inventory for values that were more indicative of their true value to each party.

However, while the change was straightforward for the ad exchange ecosystem, it also presented a new challenge to the way that ad networks had traditionally been operating.

From their onset, ad networks were, by design, created to help publishers sell their remnant ad inventory – an operation which was now taking place automatically with a much higher level of efficiency through ad exchanges.

With that said, because ad exchanges were now moving away from selling ad impressions in bulk, this created an opportunity for ad networks to redefine their service offering.

In an evolutionary process that took place over several years following the introduction of RTB (and is still taking place to this day), various ad networks began redefining their role within the digital advertising ecosystem, with some popular changes including:

  • Shifting focus away from reselling remnant ad inventory, and instead emphasizing premium ad inventory sales through convenient package-deals from various publishers
  • Focusing on offering ad inventory from exclusive publisher partnerships – providing unique advertising opportunities that aren’t available anywhere else
  • Bundling some programmatic ad impressions into package options – in a sense, offering more bulk-buying convenience that ad exchanges previously used to offer
  • Adding convenience and expertise based value-added services, like managing ad campaigns and programmatic ad buying (in a sense, emulating and offering some of the services provided by specialist companies, like ad agencies)

…so… is there still room for improvement? Almost certainly!

But for now, the journey through digital advertising history finally comes to a close.

While the digital advertising ecosystem is always evolving, with this most recent set of changes taking place to ad networks, a comparison between ad networks and ad exchanges, in their current modernized states, can finally take place.


Ad Networks vs Ad Exchanges: What’s the real difference?

Having an understanding of the history behind ad networks and ad exchanges provides significant context when trying to untangle the similarities and differences between them.

So, what’s the real difference between an ad network and an ad exchange?

The table below provides a detailed breakdown that evaluates the various components of ad networks and ad exchanges against one another in a side-by-side comparison:

Ad NetworkAd Exchange
Type of BusinessA human owned and operated company.An automated technology platform.
Original (Historical) Purposes• Introduced in 1996.

• Helping publishers and advertisers to streamline the numerous ad buying and selling relationships between one another.
• Introduced in 2005.

• Helping publishers to sell their remnant ad inventory with a high level of reliability, albeit typically at lower prices than those secured by selling through ad networks.

• Improving overall ad buying and selling efficiency through automation.
Modern (Additional) Purposes• Connecting advertisers with premium (and sometimes exclusive) ad inventory sources from high quality publishers.

• Providing convenient bulk-buying options for ad impressions (typically, at higher prices, allowing publishers to make more ad revenue than selling through an ad exchange).

• Offering value-add services like ad campaign management and programmatic media buying management.
• Providing a high level of control to advertisers and publishers over defining rules and conditions for buying and selling ads.
Automation & Programmatic ElementsNon-Automated*

Sometimes Programmatic**

*Note: Modern ad networks sometimes offer self-service options to advertisers, which may sometimes be interpreted as an “automated” ad buying experience. However, this method of buying pre-packaged ad impressions is not to be confused with the automated impression-by-impression bidding systems and targeting options found in programmatic advertising.

**Note: Modern ad networks sometimes bundle programmatic ad impressions at a fixed rate into their sales packages (the pricing of this inventory is not determined by auction, but rather, negotiated manually for a fixed rate. The placement process of the ads themselves is then managed programmatically). Ad networks that focus on sales methods like these are sometimes referred to as “programmatic ad networks” – a methodology which is gaining popularity in modern digital advertising.

• Easily identifiable as one of the greatest sources of confusion within this entire comparison! 🙂
Automated

Programmatic

Note: Initial configuration from both advertisers and publishers is required.
Ad Buying Method• Ad impressions are categorized and bundled into large groups to be sold and negotiated as packages to advertisers.

• The cost of ad impressions remains static and stable once negotiations conclude.
• Ad impressions are sold on an impression-by-impression basis using RTB auctions ( as well as other more modernized programmatic bidding models).

• The cost of ad impressions may fluctuate based on advertiser competition over certain ad space.
Transaction MethodIntermediary

(Transactions between publishers and advertisers run through the ad network – which actively facilitates the transactions as an involved third-party.)

Note: Historically, ad networks acted as human-to-human sales intermediaries, though this isn’t always the case in modern digital advertising (self-service options for advertisers are offered by some ad networks).
Non-Intermediary

(Transactions between publishers and advertisers take place on the ad exchange’s open-marketplace technology platform itself, and are conducted without a third-party’s involvement.)
Process Transparency• Markup prices on a publisher’s ad inventory are not disclosed to advertisers.

• Publishers aren’t able to tell which advertisers will buy their ads.
• Advertisers are able to define how much they’re willing to pay for ads.

• Publishers are able to define which advertisers are able to bid on their ad inventory.
Ad Campaign Performance Optimization• Often involves human reporting, coordination, and collaboration between the advertiser and the ad network.

• Sometimes managed by the ad network team.
• Performance reports are automatically generated.

• Adjustments can be made directly by publishers and advertisers.

• May sometimes be assisted by AI suggestions.
Accessible Publisher Websites / InventorySelected publisher websites that have applied for membership, have met certain qualifications, and been approved to join the ad network. Any publisher on the internet that connects to the ad exchange.

(While this may seem advantageous from an audience-reach perspective, a risk can be posed to advertisers in the form of ad fraud.)
Advantages• Publishers can sell their premium and remnant inventory for the best price.

• Advertisers gain access to the most desirable ad impressions from high quality publisher sources.
• Publishers can sell all of their remnant inventory reliably.

• Advertisers are able to attain greater audience reach through a diverse range of publishers and targeting options.

Examples• Google (Google is technically an ad network, but owns multiple ad network divisions, including its Display Ad Network and Search Ad Network)

• Facebook

• Microsoft

• Amazon

Note: The platforms above are large enough to own both their own ad networks, as well as their own ad exchanges. Publishers may join one of more of these company’s ad networks. Advertisers may choose to negotiate deals manually with the ad networks, or make use of the provided ad exchanges to purchase ad impressions programmatically (only large advertisers would typically negotiate with these companies directly).

• Media.net

• PropellerAds

• ONE (by AOL)
• Google Ads

• Facebook Ads

• Microsoft Ad Exchange

Note: The above platforms are sometimes falsely referred to as, or mistaken for, DSPs. DSPs allow advertisers to connect any ad network on the internet, while these services only provide “closed-platform” or “walled garden” access to their own ad networks. However, they do provide an interface which functions in the same way a traditional DSP does.

• Amazon Advertising

Note: Amazon is unique in offering a “true” DSP that connects both to its own network as well as others.

• OpenX

• Smaato

• Rubicon Project

It’s not difficult to see why there’s often a great deal of confusion surrounding ad networks and ad exchanges.

In recent years, the line between the two has been blurred significantly – with ad networks integrating the use of features offered by ad exchanges into their own service offerings.

But, with a look into how both of these platforms evolved, both the original and still-existing differences between the two platforms become a little easier to understand and recognize.

Both ad networks and ad exchanges are still highly relevant, and both are still used at all levels across different verticals within the digital advertising ecosystem.

In modern times, publishers and advertisers continue to make use of diverse platforms that include a mix of both ad networks and ad exchanges, making use of the advantages offered by each.

Wondering how an ad server can easily connect you and your website to a wide range of the internet’s most popular ad networks and ad exchanges?

The AdButler team has over two decades of experience in adtech, helping people to configure and connect their technology stacks to maximize their ad revenue potential.


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Kyle Strong