Serving ads . . . sounds boring, right? And on its face, it is. Ad servers are the pipes of digital advertising — they (virtually) move content or ad creatives into empty slots on a publisher’s pages and keep track of how many times they did it. So it’s no wonder that most of the adtech companies I talk with see the ad-serving market as unglamorous, unattractive, and commoditized. But we think that’s a shortsighted view. Because if you’re the ad server, you touch more impressions than anyone else in a marketer’s adtech stack, and you see and touch all of that data. You get to decide what creative gets served on each and every impression. You get to oversee the allocation of conversion credit. You are a source of decisions and of truth.

So why are we talking about Sizmek, Amazon, and ad serving? Because of the recent news that Amazon was exploring the acquisition of floundering adtech company Sizmek’s ad server. This is big news, as Amazon has become the new darling of digital advertising, going from zero to hero virtually overnight. It raked in a staggering $10 billion in 2018, beating even our heady growth projections.

Why would Amazon want to buy Sizmek’s ad server? There are a few reasons:

  1. To boost its trove of data. Amazon controls major assets in its authenticated user base, cross-device reach, and powerful, scaled transactional data set — all of which it’s holding very closely to the chest. Playing the role of ad server could bolster its data collection and activation capabilities.
  2. To get both advertising tech and know-how for a song. One of the biggest complaints we hear about Amazon’s existing adtech stack (consisting of a search ad tool and a demand-side platform [DSP]) is that the usability and functionality is poor. And Amazon has been relatively slow to improve here. We think that, by acquiring Sizmek’s ad server, Amazon would get some third-party adtech expertise to improve existing shortfalls and build a more competitive toolset. And it’d likely get this for a steal (Zeta Global acquired Sizmek’s DSP/DMP assets for just $36 million).
  3. To better compete with its archrival Google. Guess who happens to dominate the ad-serving market? You guessed it: Google. When Google acquired DoubleClick in 2007, it bought some pretty powerful assets, not least among them an ad exchange (which is now a massive player in the programmatic ecosystem) and ad-serving capabilities on both the buy and sell side. That means an awful lot of data flowing through the Google stack and an awful lot of marketers, agencies, and publishers who depend on it. And it didn’t help that Facebook’s acquisition of Atlas back in 2013 effectively killed Google’s biggest buy-side ad-serving competitor.

When the Amazon/Sizmek news broke then, it’s no wonder we audibly groaned: What the market needs like a hole in the head is another powerful walled garden taking valuable adtech assets out of the market at a time when what’s really, truly needed is a healthy ecosystem of viable independent alternatives. What Sizmek was assembling looked like little more than a collection of assets, acquired over a decade: ad-serving tech, media buying/optimization tech (DSP), audience management tech (DMP), and creative adtech (CAT). Those assets were, however, a viable alternative to Google’s adtech stack.

And this is happening just as cracks in Google’s ad-serving dominance may be showing and as marketers seem more open than ever to Google alternatives.

The real battleground will be decisioning: not just which creative to serve but which ad to buy, for how much, and at what point in a user’s journey — powered by artificial intelligence. But in the meantime, by not getting into the ad-serving business, the independents are just making their jobs a little bit harder.

The Amazon/Sizmek ad-serving acquisition isn’t a done deal yet — who’s listening?