One of Ad Tech’s Biggest Names Is Gone. What Has the Industry Learned?

The programmatic industry enters a new era with Magnite

Rubicon Project, 2007-2020, a company that sailed the highs, lows revival of the ad tech. Rubicon Project
Headshot of Ronan Shields

Key insights:

The big hitters of the early ad-tech era are slowly disappearing, spurring pangs of nostalgia along with insights as the sector continues to encompass more forms of media.

For instance, today Rubicon Project joined AppNexus in the graveyard of programmatic greats, after its merger with Telaria, itself an offshoot of the original Tremor Video. The entity is now known as Magnite.

Founded in 2007, Rubicon—named after Julius Caesar’s decision to cross a river of the same name, thus altering the course of Roman history—was a trailblazer in how publishers would come to monetize their online media.

Anyone could be the next Google

The first decade of the 2000s was an era of free-flowing venture capital, with investors eager to find the next Google and ad-tech companies seemingly on course to emulate the success of the search behemoth. Money was lavished upon these firms—check out this video that embodies the gaiety of the era.

Rubicon eventually followed Tremor Video, making an initial public offering in early 2014, reportedly raising more than $100 million on its opening day of trading.

While the good times were indeed rolling for a bit, the waters have gotten choppy for most ad-tech companies. Simply put, the industry was entering a new phase of maturation—a dynamic that is now playing out at a faster pace.

2020 accelerates existing trends

Rubicon was no outlier in this regard, and in 2016 it entered a series of difficult quarters. Developments such as the mass adoption of header bidding commodified supply-side platforms, plus the increased dominance of Big Tech and looming privacy laws meant its woes only mounted. This is in addition to quarrels (now resolved) with publishers over fee transparency–an issue that persists in ad tech.

A change of leadership in early 2017 saw current CEO Michael Barrett take the helm, and he went about addressing some of the issues at hand.

These included helping to co-found in order to help independent ad tech share certain technology to compete with the behemoths. In addition, it later dropped its buy-side fees, and more openly disclosed its sell-side take rates in order to win favor with publishers.

Maturation requires new branding

This period of adjustment was not without its pain points, with cutbacks in staff and drops in quarterly returns. But after a challenging 2017-18, Rubicon’s (RUBI) stock price began to point in the right direction. This culminated in the December 2019 announcement of its intention to merge with Telaria (a company that likewise had to go about some serious readjustments).

Barrett explained to Adweek that the decision to dispense with a brand that strikes such strong name-recognition in favor of the name Magnite was to reflect two companies (and sectors of the industry) coming together. It’s a necessary move as well, because while desktop and mobile ad inventory are still important to ad tech, almost every player in the sector is in a rush to position themselves as CTV players, a recurring theme at this year’s NewFronts.

So what are the lessons that can be learned from the ebb-and-flow of ad tech’s first full decade?

For a start, put consumer experience first, and avoid fixating on the take rate and other superfluous industry norms. In addition, agreeing upon standards can help ease collective progress by reducing needless complexity. All this can help repackage ad tech as it aims to enter a new era.

And lastly, R.I.P. Rubicon Project, a company that rolled with the good times and bad in ad tech’s early era.

Want more stories like this in your inbox? Subscribe to my thrice-weekly Programmatic newsletter here.

@ronan_shields Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.