The Bidstream Riptide

By Brian Jones

EVP, Integrated Strategy

How is audience data being used by publishers and third-party data providers?

That’s what we’ll be discussing today with four distinguished experts in the media industry, from audience data providers and programmatic platforms to media publishers.

This June, BPA Worldwide, a not-for-profit organization that provides third-party audits of audience claims and certifies the ad tech stack to IAB and TAG standards, made waves with their, “Open Letter to the Digital Advertising Industry.” 

The letter aims to raise awareness to what the group describes as an infrastructural loophole which allows for a “significant data breach by companies gaining access to real-time bidding.” 

At JUST, we take data privacy extremely seriously and believe this is an important discussion for the market. We support trusted data providers as well as publishers’ ability to generate revenue through quality content. What’s more, we support the rights of consumers and work to ensure data privacy rights are never infringed.

We wanted to learn more about this issue addressed by BPA so we reached out to a set of leaders from across the ecosystem. All views expressed by our interview subjects are their own. Below are the interviews between myself and this distinguished group:

Lon Otremba

Chief Executive Officer

Sarah Lavery

Global Head of Programmatic

Tom McGrade

VP, Business Operations

Mark Dye

Chief Strategy Officer

Bombora is the industry’s leading B2B intent data provider. Bombora partners directly with B2B publishers that represent over 4K individual business focused web properties.

In partnership with these publishers, Bombora tracks content engagement/consumption patterns of millions of individual businesses globally.

By understanding the historical content consumption patterns of these businesses, Bombora is able to identify specific areas of B2B research that is increasing against that specific companies’baseline of “normal”research activity. Bombora’s partners and customers then utilize this insight to deliver outreach and advertising that are both timely and useful for the end user.

Bombora, as a data provider can you please describe what the bidstream exactly is and how it is used? 

Bombora: Bidstream data was created for the express purpose of getting the highest “bid” price for the publisher, for each impression the publisher sells via real-time bidding (RTB). Let me repeat, the bidstream was created to “HELP” the publisher secure higher a CPM price and increase revenue for their inventory.  

To assist the RTB buyers of the publisher’s content make more informed decisions as to the value of a given impression, the publishers permitted the bidstream to contain very valuable audience and page-level data intended to help those buyers understand the audience viewing the page, and the context of the page, to thus increase the buyer’s bid price to place an ad for the specific page/view/impression.  

This data includes audience member data such as cookie ID’s, geographic location, the referring IP addresses and more. It also includes the publisher’s top-level domain and the exact page level URL of publisher’s site being visited. 

Afterall, how could a buyer accurately assess the value an impression without pretty detailed information about the audience member viewing the page and the exact content of the impression? The answer is simple – the buyer’s need this bidstream information to effectively set their bidding strategy. 

However, there was never any intention on the part of the publishers that this rich data would be used for any purpose other than increasing the value of their impressions to the agencies/brands/buyers. Companies participating in bidstream harvesting completely corrupt the intention of this relationship by A) harvesting the data with absolutely no intention of buying the impression and B) actually creating competing products from the bidstream. 


Bombora has decided to support this initiative by signing the open letter. Can you please talk a bit about why Bombora decided to join this effort? 

Bombora: As mentioned in the Bombora company overview, Bombora has created our solutions in close partnership with the publisher community.

Therefore, Bombora has a vested interest in protecting and supporting the publishing industry. 

We believe it is critical for the advertising industry to take this threat seriously as publishers are under extreme pressure. Between issues such as Bidstream harvesting, to the C19 pandemic’s effect on publishers’ event businesses – these are just two examples of the challenges that are disproportionately affecting the publishing industry.   

Why do you think advertisers should care about what data they are using in their advertising campaigns? 

Bombora: If advertisers and agencies are happy in a world with only the walled garden monopolies (i.e. Amazon, Google, Facebook) and a few huge publishers such as CNN, WSJ, Fox, etc…then they shouldn’t care.  

If, however, they truly appreciate the unique audiences and value provided by vertically focused B2B publishers, then they should care a lot. These publishers provide a truly unique service to the B2B industry. Not only is it the right and ethical thing to do, it is in their interest as well to maintain a healthily ecosystem. 

Who do you think is harmed the most when bidstream data is misused and why? 

Bombora: The entire publishing eco-system is being harmed. The companies that misuse bidstream are essentially stealing data and have NO “cost of goods.” By “cost of goods” we mean A) these companies are not bearing the significant cost required to create content that attracts the audience (publishers have spent billions to create content and decades to build an audience that appreciates and values that content) and B) are not paying any license fees to the publishers for the commercial use of this data.  

Therefore, these “bad actors” are able sell this audience, company and behavioral data for a fraction of the data’s actual value. This is because they have made literally no investment creating the value that attracts the audience. This creates a “race to the bottom” for every Publisher’s inventory and is destroying the publishers’ ability to generate revenue commensurate with the cost to create and maintain an audience and thus survive. 

Can you please describe how Bombora collects and uses data and how it differs from how these so-called bad actors are misusing the bid stream? 

Bombora: As stated earlier, Bombora has direct contractual relationships with the publishers in the Bombora Co-Op. Bombora fairly compensates the publishers for the use of their data and in addition, shares the information between Co-Op Members to create their own revenue producing products. Therefore, Bombora is completely transparent as to the use of this data and utilizes our solutions to actually increase revenue opportunities for our publishers. 

Thank you for participating in this discussion. What final thoughts do you have on this topic?  

Bombora: Please support the B2B publishing community or it will disappear. It’s simply the right thing to do. 

Bidtellect is a demand-side platform that specializes in the planning, execution, distribution, and analytics of paid content previews, colloquially known as Native advertisements.  

The platform is available via self-service or managed service.  Because Bidtellect has always been a Native specialist, it has developed a number of unique differentiator capabilities, including placement-level supply integration, massive scale, and the industry’s most advanced optimization capabilities. 

 Bidtellect also has an in-house creative studio available to all clients. 

What are your thoughts on the BPA open letter that was recently sent out regarding the bidstream and how it is being used from an ad tech company perspective?  

Bidtellect: From Bidtellect’s perspective, the macro position – that abuses of the bidstream are occurring in the industry – is valid enough, though the letter is vague about what constitutes abuse, merely using the phrase “derivative works” without defining what that is. If that refers to the harvesting of bidstream data solely to assemble audiences for resale, and not to inform the bid, then I would say that is not what the bidstream was intended to do.    

Based on your experience, how prevalent is this in the ecosystem and is this a problem?  

Bidtellect: Again, it depends on what we’re referring to here as abuse.  If we’re talking about harvesting bidstream data to assemble audiences for resale, and not to inform the bid, then yes, it is prevalent, and it is becoming more so. Whether it’s a problem or not depends on your point of view. If you are a publisher who believes all data in the bidstream is solely intended to inform the bid (which is why publishers provide it in the bidstream to begin with) then it’s a problem when the data are being used in some other manner that doesn’t benefit them.  

We have seen different responses on this from various parties. Do you agree on all the points in the open letter itself or is it more grey than black and white?  

Bidtellect: There is definitely grey here. Again, the letter does not make clear what abuse of the bidstream actually is, or what, if any restrictions should be placed on it, or on how the data are used. We strongly believe that the bidstream should remain accessible to all legitimate bidders for informing the bid.  If restrictions are placed on how the bidstream is used, then it must be crystal clear what constitutes “derivative works;” even then, if any restrictions are placed on how bidstream data are harvested, then it could have the unintended consequence of hurting publishers, who won’t be benefiting from the higher yields afforded the best informed bidders.   

How does Bidtellect vet data partners in its platform?   

Bidtellect: As a buying, execution, and analytics platform, all decisions made regarding data partners accessed by Bidtellect are client-driven, meaning that even if we are currently not accessing a particular data partner, we will if the clients request it. If the audiences are legit and good quality, our bidder will favor them, and the performance of the campaign will validate them. If not, they will not. Therefore, the primary way to vet audiences is to see if they work.  

What role do you think ad tech should play in situations around data and how data is being used, particularly bidstream data?   

Bidtellect: The primary role for ad tech in this context is to have a fair, efficient, and open bidding environment that rewards its participants equitably, with crystal clear “guardrails” around what is permitted and what is not. Compliance with industry standards and government regulations must be strictly enforced.    

What do you believe is the best path forward for the ecosystem as it relates to the bidstream and usage of that data by various parties? 

Bidtellect: The best way forward for the ecosystem is to provide greater clarity and precision around how the bidstream can be used, not to restrict what it contains. In fact, the best way forward for all is to make more signals, not fewer, available to bidders. That way everyone benefits.     

IDG is a trusted and dependable voice, that creates quality content to generate knowledge, trust and deep relationships with our community.

We know that the way buyers evaluate technology purchases has changed dramatically and this is why our content is so valuable for those looking to make a purchase. Environment and context matters.

IDG’s high quality data and marketing technology gives our customers and partners the advantage they need. Our 1st party data unites demographic and behavioral insights, and is global/language agnostic. We use our institutional knowledge of the technology buying process to help vendors understand purchase intent and deliver the right message at the right time.

I see IDG has signed the BPA open letter. Can you please talk about why you thought it was so important you endorse this initiative? 

IDG: Our brands are recognized as the most credible, trustworthy and relevant in the market because our editors understand the technology landscape like no one else. Readers trust us for advice and insight into their most important buying decisions, across the entire tech ecosystem. We feel very strongly that we can play a decisive role in helping technology companies reach their customers and help inform their purchasing decisions. By becoming a signatory to the BPA open letter, we wanted to reinforce this message and to remind the buy side that quality publishing must be supported and that not all content is created equally. This was an extension of a change in strategy at the beginning of 2020 where we removed our B2B brands from the open auction in order reduce the risks that come as part of that. 

According to the open letter, there are bad actors misusing the bidstream. How has this impacted your business specifically? 

IDG: One of the challenges in this space is being able to hone in on and stop bad actors in real time. And as a result, transparency and trust in the programmatic space continues to come under scrutiny, rightly so. For IDG, we feel that that the risks, real or perceived, of exposing our brands to this misuse was not a price we were willing to pay. Anecdotal feedback in market was a real eye opener – a buyer suggesting that they can access and execute against our premium brands for pennies as opposed to engaging us a solution provider with tangible benefits is not something we can passively accept. We don’t believe this is right. 

As a publisher, what steps are you taking to protect your data as it relates to the bid stream? 

IDG: As mentioned above the most drastic action we have taken is removing our B2B inventory from the open auction and this includes reviewing all commercial partnerships on our brands. I think though, this is one side to a multifaceted issue – the misuse of publisher data happens across the transaction ecosystem. We need to work with the buy side to educate all stakeholders that no one wins by devaluing quality content. 3P cookies have also created a perception that buyers can get what they want at low cost and at scale. You simply can’t – we understand the role that 3P cookies have had and they can certainly play a part, but we would argue that they are simply not a reliable enough proxy for knowing you are exposing your messaging to the right person in a contextually relevant environment.   

What role do you think the overall publishing industry should have regarding the misuse of bidstream data?  

IDG: That’s a really good point, up until now I’ve talked about the buy side, but quite rightly, publishers need to look at our value prop and ensure that it’s keeping pace with a changing world. At IDG we have invested heavily in our technology to allow us to join up the touch points across our portfolio and are moving to a place where advertisers can use their 1P data with solutions executed across our brands. We understand that this is key to how advertisers think about their overall marcomms strategy.  Our recent acquisition of Triblio (AMB SaaS platform) is a real testament to our commitment in this area. 

Thank you for participating in this discussion. What final thoughts do you have on this topic?  

IDG: It’s a complex area, and to focus just on the bidstream is too narrow a view to take – depreciation of 3P cookies, challenges around brand safety measurements, value of 1P data – all contribute to the sentiment in the BPA open letter. 

All parties should consider their role in protecting the ecosystem and strive towards a win-win.   Fundamentally, we’re all looking to achieve the same outcomes, but I’d argue that we should think not only about if we can do something, but whether we should. 

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