Let’s stick together: the case for open source in adtech

Following the IAB's call for collaboration at Mumbrella360, Rubicon Project's Rohan Creasey explains why embracing the hive mind is the best thing that could happen to the adtech industry.

Those of you of a certain age may remember the pivotal scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe’s Maximus Decimus Meridius leads the Barbarian into the Coliseum to fight to the death and tells them “whatever comes out of these gates we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together”.

And (with the hyperbole acknowledged) this is what I believe the ad tech industry needs to do more of as we continue to navigate the shifting media and advertising landscape. Naturally, we all want to be the last ones standing, but we have a much better chance if we collaborate to drive collective – and optimal – innovation.

Technical collaboration

This brings me to the thorny topic of programmatic. It’s come a long way in the last decade and is well on its way to become the dominant form of buying online display advertising in Australia (according to GroupM it will account for 48% this year; above the global average of 47%). However, in some quarters it has become synonymous with well documented transparency issues over the last couple of years.

Part of the problem is that even for the reasonably informed marketer, the ad tech landscape is complex and confusing, which is further exacerbated by the opacity of proprietary systems and processes.

It is for this reason that I’d like to see the ad tech market fully embrace open source. In layperson’s terms, open source code is code that allows anyone to contribute and anyone to see. In contrast to proprietary code, it’s entirely transparent, crowd-sourced and easily monitored. And it’s got a role to play in programmatic trading.

Innovation via open source

Open source software (OSS) is fast becoming the modus operandi for industry disruptors, as well as established companies. We have seen organisations from P&G to Twitter adopting it, and in a race against Google, Amazon recently embraced open-source software to get its voice-based Alexa digital assistant into cars.

Indeed last year, former Space Race competitors Russia and The United States joined forces to build the first space station on the moon. When asked about the unprecedented collaboration, Igor Komarov, Roscosmos’s general director stated: “To avoid future problems over technical cooperation, part of the standards should be unified – for a possibility for various countries to work on their craft and dock to the international lunar station.”

For my money, if the Russians and Americans can sort it out then surely the ad tech industry can also collectively embrace this attitude, along with open source, and this is why:


Logic tells us that the more people who can see and test a set of codes, the more likely any flaws will be caught and fixed. This is amplified with open source, as it’s a community powered by the drive to do good and innovate collectively and every open source project has a team who test and approve every addition to the code base.

In this way, open source offers a kind of “neighbourhood watch” system of security, where everyone’s on the lookout for malware and other digital bugbears, which stops fraudsters at the door by blacklisting them, while incentivising purposeful and quality submissions. As the code base grows you know that every component is worthwhile.

This is the opposite of the “security through obscurity” approach used so often to justify the use of expensive proprietary products. Fraudsters thrive in obscurity, but when dropped into a well-lit system, they’re quickly found out.

Auction dynamics

Current ad servers are not designed to produce unified real-time auctions. Header bidding is a step toward this goal and open source optimises the speed at which we’re moving there.

A proprietary wrapper may favour one exchanges over others and does not benefit from community innovation. Proprietary wrapper tech behaves as the owner would like, not the user. An open source wrapper behaves as the users would like; and there is no ‘owner’.

My company, Rubicon Project, endorses the use of an open source wrapper dubbed “Prebid.js”, easily accessed through Prebid.org. This open source solution drives publisher monetisation while providing ultimate transparency. By embracing open source wrappers, we can light up auction dynamics, ensure publishers’ expectations are met and that buyers are getting ROI on ad spend.

Our rationale is simple – if you’re putting ad tech into your media, surely it’s best to use tech that is owned, operated, maintained and updated by the global ad tech community, effectively for your benefit?


So what’s next?  In my view, a collective “hive” mind has the capacity to produce ever-evolving solutions and with open source code, technical standards and processes can be constantly improved upon by the ad tech community. As new technologies and platforms emerge, code can be brought up-to-date and made congruous with different browsers and emerging formats. For the marketplace to operate at maximum efficiency, code will need to be current, and the collaborative nature of open-source code motivates this.

The media industry is consolidating and evolving at lightning speed. We’ve got a much better chance of facing what comes through the gates if we can work together to make ad tech more transparent and efficient and enable stakeholders from across the divide to innovate for the greater good. So let’s give it our best shot.

Rohan Creasey is Rubicon Project’s country manager.


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