What Harvard Business School says about Sizmek and the future of ad tech

In March 2020, three scholars at Harvard Business School—Professor Ayelet Israeli, case researcher Sarah Gulick (Case Research & Writing Group), and independent researcher Danilo Tauro (industry expert)— prepared “Sizmek Chapter 11: Surviving Walled Gardens in Their Ad Tech Empire.

The result is a profoundly insightful look into the ad tech industry in general and the Sizmek story in particular. We wanted to tease a few of the main discussion points in the case—while noting, of course, that we’re omitting a number of important, vital ideas and conclusions. Think of this post as a conversation starter, rather than a conversation summary.

The scope of “Sizmek Chapter 11: Surviving Walled Gardens in Their Ad Tech Empire” is vast, covering years of ad tech history, but we’re taking a particular look at what it says about the events of three generalized time frames…and what the Sizmek bankruptcy means for the ad tech industry at large.

The Past: Rise of the Walled Gardens & GDPR

In considering the rise and fall of Sizmek it’s important to go back and look at two issues that the ad tech industry knows well as massive, seismic shifts: the rise of the walled gardens (this case study is looking primarily at Google and Facebook) and GDPR.

This study examines how the two issues go hand in hand, paving the way for the bankruptcy of Sizmek and questions about the future of ad tech.

The term “walled garden” could easily be “fortress,” because of how strong the barriers are. Most media platforms allowed the ad tech ecosystem as a whole to access data concerning advertising, but the walled gardens didn’t. This had the effect of “making it difficult for third-party advertisers to collect their own data or leverage any types of data outside the walled garden.” (“Sizmek Chapter 11: Surviving Walled Gardens in Their Ad Tech Empire.”)

Not only that, but the walled gardens withheld user identification cookies, which adds an additional layer of brick between what was being used inside the walled gardens and what was being used everywhere else.

This already fraught environment was then intensified thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation. As Markus Plattner, Sizmek’s Chief Technology Officer, explains:

GDPR was meant in part to stop big companies from having access to everyone’s data, but it turns out that big companies are usually the only ones who can afford to comply with the regulation […] What happened instead was that data stopped being shared, so the walled garden companies had user data and could sell advertisements based on it, cutting out everyone else.

Sizmek  aimed, according to Sizmek CEO Mark Grether, to compete with the walled gardens by focusing on exemplary customer service and international knowledge. Sizmek’s range of services appealed to clients looking for piecemeal and bespoke projects, adding up to what Paul Wright, Sizmek’s general manager for Europe,  the Middle East, and Africa, called “a more personalized version of ad tech.”

The Present: Spring 2019 to Summer 2020

But by 2019, Sizmek still wasn’t profitable. And due to the fact that a personalized approach to ad tech had become significantly harder to achieve, faith that profitability could be achieved in a timely manner was shaken.

A main reason for this, according to “Sizmek Chapter 11: Surviving Walled Gardens in Their Ad Tech Empire,” is because, while “several years earlier, a DSP could earn a margin of 50% to 60% […] by spring 2019, DSP margins were often between 8% and 15%.”

When reflecting on Sizmek’s bankruptcy and what could have been done differently, a variety of opinions come forth. One probable issue is timing: many believe Sizmek could have become profitable if given a further six months.  Another potential hiccup could have been the slow pace of consolidation; if things had come together more quickly it’s possible that Sizmek could have picked up more smaller clients.

Peter Hunter, general manager of Sizmek in Asia, also suggested the issue was sticker shock, saying that there “was no way we were able to compete with [walled gardens] on that initial price—and there’s a constant pressure on price.”

Other possible reasons include user and viewing data, the DSP question, the focus of the business, and “Sizmek Chapter 11: Surviving Walled Gardens in Their Ad Tech Empire” investigates all these and more in great detail.

The Future: “The Evolution Of Our Industry Will Continue”

Sizmek filing for bankruptcy sent shock waves through the industry. As the case study puts it, “other small ad tech companies were disappointed in Sizmek’s bankruptcy, with the CTO of a rival company pointing out that the fall of Sizmek would further increase the industry share of walled garden companies.”

The general consensus pointed to a large-scale consolidation inside the industry, which creates after-shocks of pessimism. Some industry insiders suggested that independent ad tech would disappear entirely and the “big players” would be confronted, time and again, with privacy issues.

But others have significant optimism. According to Grether and Hunter, it’s still a vastly exciting time to be in ad tech, with the model set to be changed entirely by emerging technologies like the Internet of Things and driverless cars.

Grenther in particular believes we’re just getting started, saying, “In the future, consumers will have more marketable touchpoints. That’s not going to simplify advertising, it’s going to make it more complex […] as a result of that, some ad tech companies and agencies will survive, new ones will be created, and the evolution of our industry will continue.”


We wanted to recap some of the points from this important and fascinating case study, but there’s still a lot more to discover in “Sizmek Chapter 11: Surviving Walled Gardens in Their Ad Tech Empire.”

To get a copy, contact customerservice@harvardbusiness.org

What a new study from the New Jersey Institute Of Technology says about the engagement of ad blocking users

To Be Or Not To Be…Tough or Soft

Ad blockers: the large, unmissable, revenue-depleting elephant in the room. Already pervasive globally, the use of ad blockers just keeps growing—resulting in the growing concern and financial pinch of ad-supported websites.

And by pinch we mean vice grip: one estimate places the “doomsday scenario” losses at $35 billion USD worldwide.

Right now, there are two main ways to tackle the issue of ad blockers. These popular counter-ad-blocking measures are what a new study, authored by scholars at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, refers to as “tough” and “soft.”

The “tough” strategy to combat ad blockers is also known as the “whitelist-or-leave” or “Wall” strategy. This involves a publisher website notifying ad blocking users that they need to either a) disable their ad blockers and whitelist the page or—and this is where the “whitelist-or-leave” moniker makes sense— b) the ad blocking user is forbidden from accessing the page.

And the “soft” strategy? To quote “To Be Tough Or Soft: Measuring The Impact of Counter-Ad-Blocking Strategies on User Engagement,” this involves:

“[…] show[ing] users acceptable ads, agreed upon with the ad blocking companies, which appear in the page even when an ad blocker is active. Acceptable ads are generally less annoying ads, such as text ads instead of video ads, and also fewer in number.”

But how do the tough and soft counter-ad blocking measures impact user behaviors? This is exactly what the scholars at NJIT, with the cooperation of Forbes Media, set out to observe.

“A Randomized Field Experiment”

This study is a first: although there have been other studies looking at the phenomenon of ad blocking, academic work has looked primarily on how to counter ad blockers, rather than the effect of countering ad blocking on the users themselves. The lone study that peered into the effects on ad blocking users weighed to the benefits of the “whitelist or leave” measures against…going ad free.

And that option is utopian, but hardly realistic.

So the trio of New Jersey Institute of Technology-based scholars (Shuai Zhao, Christian Borcea, and Yi Chen), along with Achir Kalra of Forbes Media set out to answer the following questions:

  • What are the overall effects of the “soft” strategy compared to the “tough” or “Wall” strategy? And what happens if the user decides to comply with the “tough/Wall” strategy and whitelist?
  • What happens when the user groups have different characteristics?
  • What are the long-term and short-term effects of the “tough” or “Wall” strategy?

The results create a composite that’s a useful, illuminating look into both counter- ad blocking strategies and the psychology of ad blocking users.

A Question of Overall Engagement

The study, which contained a dataset with 40,000 ad blocking users, varied across traffic, operating system, geographic area and other factors, led to one significant conclusion:

“Our study shows that the Wall strategy has an overall negative impact on user engagements.”

The “overall negative impact” is qualified, however. It’s true that extraordinarily loyal, highly engaged users aren’t as impacted by the Wall strategy because, in general, these users do whatever it takes to view page content. This is why the study goes on to say “we do not recommend the Wall [white-listing] strategy to publishers unless they have a large portion of loyal users.”

Which leads to another problem: very few publishers that have that “large portion of loyal users.” In fact, it’s a rarity.

Different Characteristics; Different Results

Unless the user base of the publisher is extraordinarily highly-engaged, and the content provided is unique and highly sticky, a publisher generally won’t get the kind of users that the New Jersey institute of Technology and Forbes deem sufficiency loyal.

According to “To Be Tough or Soft,”

“For low-engaged users, the Wall strategy has a large negative effect on pageviews […] since the majority of users are low-engaged users, the revenue of the publisher is expected to suffer a lot when using the Wall strategy.”

And it’s matter of reality that most publishers attract users that fall into the category of low-engagement<: the exact kind of users that the time-consuming process of whitelisting process works to deter.

And what about “middle-engaged users”? It turns out that they’re also deterred by the Wall strategy…not so much by the labor-intensive process of white listing, but by the presence of annoying ads after the white-listing process is complete.

(These annoying ads are notably absence from the “acceptable ads” experience. This is because the criteria that determine whether an ad is “acceptable,” as set forth by the independent Acceptable Ads Committee, are designed to make sure ads are “respectful, nonintrusive, and relevant.”)

Long-Term Vs. Short Term

If the deterrence of low-engagement users is significant in the short term, it becomes even more striking over a period of time. According to the study,

Quantitatively, we find that the Wall strategy causes a 20.5% increase of the visit duration gap. The reason is probably that the ad-blocker users feel disturbed when facing the Wall strategy, and they are less willing to come back.

Although loyal users faced with the Wall strategy are “likelier to whitelist gradually over time,” it becomes apparent that “the ad-blocker users who refuse to whitelist previously would probably not come back.”

In other words, the silence left in the wake of ad blocking user abandonment when faced with a whitelisting solution grows even more deafening over time…unless you’re one of the slim percentage of publishers to attract the kind of loyalty that can withstand an “all or nothing” Wall approach.

The Way Forward

For publishers that make up the percentage of the population that can honestly claim to have the kind of super-loyalty and tremendously sticky content that would motivate users to navigate a Wall strategy; if you’re not a member of this (small) club, a Wall strategy is going to create additional work.

Publishers will be forced to ponder the following question, posed in the final “Discussions” section of “To Be Tough Or Soft: Measuring The Impact of Counter-Ad-Blocking Strategies on User Engagement:”

If a publisher indeed wants to adopt the Wall strategy, the problem is how to convert casual users to high-engaged users, since casual users are more likely to leave forever when facing the Wall strategy.

There were no such questions, and no sort of additional problems, that arose in response “soft” solution created by the acceptable ads strategy. Low-engaged and medium-engaged users alike—the vast majority of ad blocking users across the globe—fare better with acceptable ads. These users are neither deterred by the labor-intensive process of white-listing or the intrusive ads that show up after the white-listing process.

So: to be tough, or to be soft? It turns out that a softer option is broadly effective, and that success via the “tough” white-listing strategy is…significantly tougher.