Publishers vs Advertisers: What’s the difference?

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Online advertising terminology regularly causes a lot of confusion.

Fortunately, the difference between publishers and advertisers is easy to sort out.

Publishers are the owners of ad space (also referred to as “ad inventory”) while advertisers are the ones who purchase ad space.

While that’s the simplified version, there’s certainly more to be said about each party.

Table of Contents:

What is a publisher in ad tech?

Publishers are the owners, “suppliers”, or “sellers” of digital ad space online.

They’re referred to as the “first-party” in digital advertising, because they have direct ownership over the ad space that they sell to the advertisers they work with.

Some examples of different types of digital publishers include:

  • Website owners
  • Blog owners
  • Podcast productions
  • Video content creators (YouTube, etc.)
  • Mobile apps/games
  • Software platforms

The unifying factor between all of these diverse publisher mediums is that various types of ads can be placed within them – meaning that these channels create available ad space.

Some examples of large ad publishers you may be familiar with include:

  • The New York Times
  • Time Magazine
  • Microsoft
  • The Joe Rogan Experience Podcast
  • Steam
  • ASUS
  • Costco

It’s important to understand that “ad space” isn’t restricted to things that ad blockers target in web browsers – like display boxes and banners located on websites, or video ads that appear in videos.

Anywhere that’s capable of promoting a product or service is considered “ad space”.

For example, millions of players log into Steam’s gaming service each day using Steam’s desktop application – which manages and launches a user’s library of owned games.

Steam promotes games from different developers within their launcher – which effectively serves as “unblockable” premium ad space for developers to promote the games they make.

Of course, to avoid a layer of possible confusion in this example, Steam is acting as an ad publisher, and not a video game publisher – which is an entirely different business function (albeit, one serving a similar purpose in the sense of “distributing” games and promoting them to an audience).

Why are they called “publishers”?

Publishers are referred to as such for a few reasons:

  • In a broad sense, the creators of content online (commonly referred to as “content creators” or “content publishers”) are “publishing” their creations when they share them with the web. Similar to how multiple copies of the same “published” magazine issue might be distributed, once a publisher “publishes” their content, multiple “copies” of that content are made available to people who engage with it.
  • From an ad tech perspective, owners of ad space are sometimes referred to as “ad publishers”. This is because a single “issue” of an ad is being “published” and distributed multiple times to various users that view them online.

What’s the difference between an affiliate, a marketer, and a publisher?

An affiliate is someone who promotes the products or services of another company. They’re typically compensated based on the sales that are made from the traffic they provide.

A marketer is a very broad term used to describe anyone who is responsible for the promotion of a message. Compensation models are very diverse for marketers.

A publisher is someone who creates and owns a content product. Publishers can generate revenue by selling their content, monetizing ad space, and through supporter donations.

It’s possible for someone to belong to two or more of these groups at the same time.

For example, someone who creates livestream content online is considered a publisher – they generate ad revenue, and receive donations from the viewers of their created content.

The same livestreamer may place Amazon affiliate links on their profile for the streaming equipment they use, allowing users to purchase the same equipment they use for streaming.

The same livestreamer may also market or promote a message by giving a shoutout to events taking place online or other streamers – which may be sponsored, or done for free.

There are numerous ways for publishers to monetize content outside of selling ad space, and it’s common for them to use a mix of different techniques to generate revenue.

Who is an advertiser in ad tech?

Advertisers are the “demand generators” or “buyers” of digital ad space online.

They’re referred to as the “third-party” in digital advertising, because in relation to publishers (who own the advertising mediums), advertisers are an “external” third-party involvement.

Anyone who has a product or service that wishes to promote those things through messaging to an audience is considered an advertiser.

For example, an advertiser that wants to promote their new protein shake might contact a health and fitness podcast producer to negotiate the purchase of a 30 second audio ad slot, or sponsor an “embedded” verbal mention of the protein shake product within the podcast session itself.

Similarly, display ads and banner ads may be placed alongside the written content of a blog, while video ads may be played at the beginning, middle, or end of a piece of video content.

There are also many forms of non-digital advertising that are still widely used today.

In fact, some methods such as DOOH (Digital Out Of Home) advertising blend traditional physical advertising, like billboards, with the advantages offered by digital mediums.

Confusion Clarified: Direct Advertising vs Direct Deals

The term “direct” is frequently used in two different ways when talking about advertisers.

The first mention of “direct” is used when discussing “direct advertising”. Direct advertising (or direct marketing) refers broadly to a strategy used to reach an audience through methods which deliver a message to them directly, such as:

  • Email
  • Mobile (SMS)
  • Social Media
  • Push Notifications (Website / App)
  • Chat Messengers

The aim of direct advertising, in most cases, is to place a message including a CTA (call to action) in front of a target audience, without using any third-parties to deliver it.

The second mention of “direct” is used when discussing “direct deals”. A direct deal in the context of digital advertising refers to the process of an advertiser manually reaching out and negotiating an arrangement with a publisher to purchase their available ad space.

Typically, direct deals are the favored way for advertisers and publishers to do business. 

Direct deals provide the highest ad revenue to publishers, and allow advertisers to build relationships with owners of high-quality content and traffic sources.

However, it’s rare for advertisers to contact publishers directly (like in the protein shake example provided earlier) unless a lot of money and audience impressions are involved.

In modern digital advertising, platforms such as ad networks and ad exchanges are used to allow advertisers to manage a high volume of interactions with different publishers at once.

The linked article above explains why (it’s a bit complicated), but simply put, it’s more time efficient and optimal for both parties to use these platforms for generic ad buying and selling.

Publisher ad server vs advertiser ad server: Is there a difference?

A common misconception is that there’s only one type of ad server.

Publishers and advertisers typically use slightly different versions of ad server technology.

Publisher ad servers, also known as “first-party ad servers”, were originally designed to receive and manage ad creatives (media elements like images, audio, and video) sent to them by an advertiser, allowing creatives from multiple ad campaigns to remain organised.

Over time, advertiser ad servers, also known as “third-party ad servers”, were designed with the same functionality in mind – though instead of having a publisher store and manage the ad creatives, advertisers were able to store and send their media to multiple publishers.

Both types of ad servers were also created with the ability to track ad performance.

While similar, each server type evolved to focus on different functionalities.

Publisher ad servers focus on:

  • Emphasizing performance tracking related to ad location placements on a website
  • Using known details about visitors to target ads towards their interests
  • Configuring rules about which ads should be displayed in which ad slots (or “zones”) and the bidding priorities for each ad slot
  • SSP (supply-side platform) integration functionality

Modern first-party ad servers are designed to track analytics and make optimizations based on a website’s “architecture” or “anatomy”, as well as the details known about its visitors.

Advertiser ad servers focus on:

  • Frequency capping (limiting how often a single user can be served the same ad)
  • A/B testing (serving different variants of the same ad to viewers over time)
  • Ad templates (pre-designed, code-free methods of generating ad creatives)
  • DSP (demand-side platform) integration functionality

Modern third-party ad servers are designed to track details about broad ad campaigns, meaning they specialize in optimizing ad performance across multiple websites at once.


However, to add to the confusion – the dividing line between modern ad servers is blurring as new features are added, and some experts argue that they’ve become almost the same.

In many cases, when purchasing a ready-to-use ad server, the difference between the two types of servers lies in the level of support and expertise the service provider can offer to guide and support publishers and advertisers.

The AdButler team has over two decades of experience in providing and configuring ad serving solutions for both publishers and advertisers.


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Kyle Strong