Online Ad Tech Curriculum: Links

[I am going to make additions/changes to the list by editing the post itself.  I think that’s better than cluttering everyones’ feed.]

A VC friend asked what he should read to better understand the online advertising market.  At the time I thought I could offer some decent advice.  But as I started to think about it I realized that the stuff you need to know to know how this stuff works is scattered all over the place.  Simple things–like a flowchart of how an ad is delivered to someone visiting a site, complete with multiple ad servers, redirects, etc.–I can’t find.

So I figured I’d start making a list.  It’s nowhere near complete.  In fact, it’s sort of off-the-cuff.  I could use some help improving it.  If you were going to point someone to a few resources that would improve their knowledge of the fundamentals–not the news, not the opinion–of the online ad business, what would they be?

In no particular order.

Books and articles:
Randall Rothenberg, Where the Suckers Moon: The Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign (link to Amazon)
The book to read on the messy details of how an ad campaign gets made with all the wacky interplay between agency and client.

Mark Tungate, Adland: A Global History of Advertising (link to Amazon)
The other day someone tried to tell me just how little I knew about the history of the agency world.  Upon pressing him, I learned he got all his info from watching Mad Men.  I told him to read this book.

Dean Donaldson, Online Advertising History (PDF)
A good–if woefully incomplete–history of online advertising.  And the only one I could find out there.  Part of Donaldson’s master’s degree program.

Kyle Bagwell, The Economic Analysis of Advertising (PDF)
What does advertising do and what is its societal purpose?  Bagwell provides a nice survey of the various academic work over the years.  In the end you might be underwhelmed by how little we know, but there it is.

Demetrios Vakratsas; Tim Ambler, How Advertising Works: What Do We Really Know? (JSTOR link, unfree*.)
If Bagwell is top-down, this is bottom-up.  Various cognitive models of advertising.

Gerard Tellis, Advertising’s Role in Capitalist Markets (PDF)
I think it’s important to note that advertising is a necessary part of our economic system.  If it were not, it would not be much use thinking about it.

Core Online Ad Enabling Technologies:
Cookies are one of the core technologies used in web advertising., Cookies (PDF)
Flash Cookies Explained (HTML)

Ad Servers:
Understanding ad serving is one of the trickiest parts of understanding the online ad infrastructure. 
Eric Picard, Ad Serving 101, Revised (HTML)
Pointed to this by Ian Thomas, below, but his link is broken.

Why do Publishers and Marketers have Separate Ad Servers? (HTML)
There’s more to it than this, but it’s a start.

Ad Tags:
Operative’s Blog on Ad Tags (HTML)
How to Read Doubleclick Ad Tags and Ad Tag Variables (HTML)

Promotional material:
OpenX White Papers
Pubmatic White Papers
In general I find industry whitepapers to be self-serving.  Doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from them, though.  These two companies have some informative stuff.

Terry Kawaja/GCA Savvian, Display Advertising Technology Landscape (PDF)
DeSilva+Phillips Online Ad Networks: Monetizing the Long Tail (PDF)
DeSilva+Phillips Ad Exchanges, RTB, and the Future of Online Advertising (PDF)
Investment Bank whitepapers.  When these reports are good, they’re invaluable in their industry coverage.

Government Scrutiny:

FTC, Self-Regulatory Principles for Online Behavioral Advertising (PDF)
The Office of Fair Trading Online Targeting of Advertising and Prices (PDFs)
Some of the most informative publicly available industry coverage is in the reports prepared for government agencies looking at whether and how to regulate.

Bloggers are flaky and difficult people who write about whatever they please whenever they please.  Um, present company excepted.  So, instead of plugging blogs, some posts I think are worth reading.  All of these are from bloggers in my feed.  They’re not all the bloggers in my feed, of course, but posts specific to this discussion.

Jay Weintraub, Risk, Arbitrage, and The Root of (Much) Evil
Ian Thomas, Online Advertising 101 series
Mike Nolet, RTB Part I (and parts Ia, Ib, II, III)
Jonathan Mendez, The True Media Value Delta
Brent Halliburton, The Chaos of Second Price Auctions
Greg Hills, Shouldn’t It be Cheaper if I Buy More?
Darren Herman, Advertising to Audiences

* If you head to your library, and they have access to JSTOR, you can get it for free.


  1. Thanks for the pointer, Scott, I’ll check it out.

    Zach–I agree. But I think there’s a whole lot of stuff you might take for granted, having been there/done that: the whole ad ops layer, the inherent error in analytics because of caching/CDNs/intermediaries, etc. You would not believe, for instance, how many people in the industry don’t know why you need to sync cookies. There’s a lot of education needs to be done on the investor side, on the entrepreneur side, and even–if we want people to be able to intelligently use the tools you and others have built–on the customer side. When ad ops was the dynamic layer, keeping it a black art was a good thing. But now that the dynamic layer is built on top of the ad ops layer, we should want everyone and their mother to understand it. (And, as a side-note, that WSJ article on tracking would have been a lot less alarmist if they had read the Cookies description I linked, IMHO.)

  2. I would have to say that the bloggers you point to seem like a singularly trustworthy, easy to get along with, rational, and brilliant collection. To single out any one of their posts is to do their blog a near-disservice as the entire blog is certainly worth reading.

    (Hmmm, I tried to sign this note “Jay Weintraub”, but Blogger does not support the “Strike” element. Sad days for blog humor.)

  3. Great insight into the current status of Online Ad ecosystem. Well, it is evolving and need further refinement. Some of the component, like Ad Exchange are not true representation of well recognized platforms, for instance Stock Exchange.

    Ad Exchanges have no transparency, no standardization of product(for instance Standard & Poor Index) and not following any regulation(for instance SEC).

    Therefore it is not fair to compare Ad Exchanges with any of the professionally managed an regulated platforms.

    Sarab Mann

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