The on-going digitisation of display advertising has led to the creation of a huge number of different companies providing services and links between publisher and advertiser. It is increasingly difficult to run an online publishing operation without working with at least some of the players in this complex ecosystem, but working out what each firm does, and how they relate to each other, can be incredibly confusing for everyone – not just publishers.

So, in attempt to bring a little clarity to the situation, and with the help of the dreaded Lumascape slide above, here’s a very simple run down of some of the key company categories.

Core channels

These are the firms through which an online ad makes it way to a publisher’s site.

Supply-side platforms: Supply-side platforms offer an intermediary service for publishers to help them optimise their ad inventory – this is how publishers supply inventory to buyers. This happens primarily through automated systems such as programmatic buying and real-time bidding. They tend to offer technology platforms that help publishers display their inventory to ad buyers, as well as other services such as setting up private marketplaces between an ad buyer and a publisher to create a closed bidding process for premium inventory.

Example companies: Rubicon, AdMeld, Pubmatic

Demand-side platforms: DSPs work like supply-side platforms, but are used by advertisers who are demanding the ad inventory. They help connect ad buyers and agency trading desks to multiple ad exchanges, providing them with aggregated audiences selected from the exchanges.

MediaMath, Efficent Frontier, Turn

Ad Networks: These are advertising companies that aggregate inventory on a huge scale, offering publishers a ready constant supply of ads via a central ad server. They can be focused on specific media types such as video or mobile, specific areas such as technology. They are often accused of driving down yields, and because of the scale they offer advertisers this is often true although there is a great deal of variation across the industry and even within individual networks.

Examples: Google , Videology, Valueclick

Ad exchanges: These exchanges enable the bidding and auctioning of inventory. Publishers offer their own inventory to the exchange, making it available to potential advertisers, either direct or through supply-side platforms or ad networks. That inventory is then collected in a market place, making it easier for advertisers to buy highly-targeted audiences. Exchanges are increasingly becoming the default link between ad networks and the rest of the buy-side of the ecosystem as programmatic and real-time bidding technology becomes a larger part of the economy.

Examples: Doubleclick, RightMedia, Microsoft Media Network

Ad servers: These provide the technology that actually delivers an advertisers’ creative to the user who has been targeted.

Examples: Doubleclick, Mediaplex, Bloom

Agency Trading desks: Agency trading desks are centralised management platform used by ad agencies which specialise in buying online ad inventory through automated ad exchanges. These are the people who effectively control how an online ad budget is spent if it is being traded through automated systems. Using data and technology, trading desks often describer their work as buying “audience” rather than advertising.

Examples: Vivaki, Accuen, Xaxis

Additional services

As well as the core firms forming the online ad chain between advertiser and publisher, there are also related firms that provide extra services designed to enhance the system:

Measurement and analytics: These help both publishers and advertisers understand how big an audience is and how they behave – in aggregate. They are increasingly developing more sophisticated ways of tracking, especially following how consumers make purchasing decisions, as well as helping advertisers decide where their advertising is most effective.

Examples: Omniture, nielsen, comScore

Third-party data suppliers: These are firms that provide actual data on individual users. Data is normally anonymised, but unlike data provided by metrics firms, it can show who a specific person is, what they do and how they behave. This data can come from cookies on publisher sites, social media sites, e-commerce sites or pretty much anywhere on the web. It can also come from any other store of information about a person – such as credit histories. Publishers can also sell data to these firms, or buy it in order to enhance the information they can provide to advertisers.

Examples: bluekai, Excelate, quantcast

Retargeting: Ever seen that same IKEA sofa or real estate promo following you around the internet? Blame retargeters, who specialise in delivering ads to users who have already seen a similar ad. They use cookies to track users from one site to another, hitting them with the same or a related ad from the same advertiser in a bid to increase the likelihood of a sale.

Examples: criteo, AdRoll, mediaForge

This list is by no means complete: Many firms offer services that fall into multiple categories, there are different routes bypassing various channels, and there is even some disagreement about the definitions of each sort of company (and we’d be happy to hear from anyone who wants to chip in with their own definitions).

However, this is a rough guide to the multiple new players that have popped up in between publishers and the people with ad budgets – exactly those people who promise to make you more money, as long as they can take a chunk of it for themselves.

Can you help us make this list better? Please drop us a line in the comments or tweet me at @jaspjackson with your thoughts.

And for a humorous take on quite how complex, jargon-filled and self referencing the ad tech industry is, here’s a video made by data supplier eXelate.