What Is a Demand Side Platform (DSP) and How Does It Work?

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  • Post last modified:January 21, 2021

In the past, digital ads were bought and sold in a manual manner by real people; publishers and ad buyers. This method of buying digital ads was not only expensive and unreliable, but in some cases, advertisers were not able to buy enough ad inventories for specific ad campaigns.

DSPs were made to make the buying and selling of ads inventories cheaper and more reliable, by programmatic bidding.

What is a Demand-Side Platform (DSP)?

A demand-side platform (DSP) is a system for advertisers to purchase and manage ad inventories from multiple ad sources through a single interface. This is normally done using intelligent software which bids on the inventories using an auction process. This makes the buying and selling of ads cheaper and more reliable.

This whole setup is termed as “programmatic advertising” and the bidding process by which ad placements are auctioned within micro-seconds is called “real-time bidding (RTB)”.

Today, the term ‘buying’ has now been replaced by the term ‘demand.’ On the other hand, publishers and media owners are now considered as a ‘supply-side.’

Thus, we have the DSP (Demand-side platform), which are used by advertisers to buy ad inventories and the SSP (Supply-side platform), used by publishers and media owners to sell their available ad inventories.

how does a DSP works
How a Demand Side Platform (DSP) works

How Does a DSP work?

The way a DSP works is highly technical, however in simple words, a DSP connects to ad inventory supply sources, where tons of publishers have made their supplies available. This allows advertisers to buy ad inventory placements across a multitude of publisher’s websites and mobile apps based on impressions.

The new generation DSPs these days do not only connect to ad exchanges and ad networks as in the case of the old, but they offer cross-channel media buying too. Some of the new platforms that can be bought into using a DSP are:

  • direct publishers (web and in-app)
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • Google keyword search
  • ad inventories from China (Baidu, Wechat, Alibaba, etc)

Using these new gen demand-side platforms, media buyers are able to run end-to-end ad campaigns from the top to the bottom of the sales funnel. This includes targeting audiences from the awareness, to interest, then to consideration and right down to the conversion phase of the funnel.

For example, a media buyer can identify someone doing a Google search for, “cheap hotels in New York”, then when she fires up Facebook, will be shown New York hotel ads on her FB timeline. Taking the campaign further, the person will also see similar ads whenever she consumes content on a website or even playing a game on an app.

Previously, media buyers had to manage multiple ad campaigns from various sources like Google, social media such as Facebook, Twitter and control them in different dashboards. However, now things are different.

New-gen DSPs are able to consolidate campaigns from different channels into a single user interface. Media buyers can now set-up, optimize, analyze and get insights of campaigns from different channels, in a single DSP platform.

Structure of a DSP

Let us take a more in-depth look into the anatomy of a Demand Side Platform.

1. Integration System

For a DSP to work efficiently, it should have the flexibility to integrate with multiple sources such as DMPs, ad exchanges, supply sources etc.

Every company has their unique ways of integration. In general, there are three phases.

  • First Phase: Involves research and set up
  • Second Phase: Development stage
  • Final Phase: Testing the integration

Today’s DSPs can support cross channel platforms and integrate with all the main ad exchanges.

2. Bidder

The bidding process can be considered as one of the key features of a DSP.

The bidding is performed by a component called “bidder” which is responsible for placing bids on inventory during real-time bidding auctions.

Usually, multiple bidders will be there to manage all real-time demands simultaneously.

3. Ad Server

An Ad Server is necessary for storing the ad creative and displaying to a user when required. Ever since the technology of DSP was rolled out, ad servers remain one of the essential tools for creative management.

Some DSPs have their own ad servers while others may connect to external ad servers depending on the architecture.

4. Campaign Tracker

Campaign tracker helps to record the data regarding the performance of a particular campaign.

The data includes clicks, impressions and spends.

Once the data is recorded, it will be transferred to the reporting dashboard. The campaign tracker helps the user to determine the performance of a particular campaign.

5. Reporting database

Here, all the data received from the campaign tracker is stored. The users can generate reports by making use of this information.

6. User data

This is an important section of the DSP, which helps in processing and storing important information about the user.

User data includes information regarding buying habits, interests, age groups, demographic details etc.

Marketers can make use of this information to improve the effectiveness of their campaigns and bring in better results.

7. User interface

This is the dashboard where the marketers work on creating, managing and optimizing their campaigns.

8. Banker

Usually, in DSP, the chances are high that the user may overspend during the bidding. This is mainly due to several bids occurring in real-time.

If the user is not careful, he may cross the budget line. Banker is an important feature of the DSP which holds the user from overspending.

Costs and Pricing

Ads in DSPs are sold on a few ways, depending on which DSP you work with. Generally, if the DSP is specifically built for performance campaigns such as app-installs, then the fee is based on CPI (Cost per Install). Most performance-based platforms use these:

  • CPI (Cost Per Install)

  • CPC (Cost Per Click) ~ mostly for driving traffic to landing pages

  • CPA/CPL (Cost Per Action / Cost Per Lead)  ~ This is mostly for lead generation campaigns

  • CPV (Cost per View) ~ This is mostly for video advertising campaigns

However, the majority of programmatic ads are sold using the CPM (Cost Per Mille or Cost Per 1,000 Views). The CPM model is good for awareness ad campaigns.

Some performance marketers will arbitrage CPM rates by buying in CPM-based DSPs and earning their fees in CPA or CPL payouts. For example, a performance marketer earning $5 per install marketing for an app publisher may pay only $2 for 1,000 impressions($2 per CPM). However, the 1,000 impressions that he pays $2 for can convert into 1 app install that has a payout of $5/install. This will nett him $3 for every $2 he spends on media buying. Obviously he can scale up his ad budget to earn even more money from the campaign.

Prices of ad impressions in DSPs are determined by a real-time bidding (RTB) process, that takes place within milliseconds, as a user loads a web page or interacts with an app.

Different from the traditional ways of buying media, with a DSP, there is no longer a need for a human to negotiate prices with the publishers, as all of this is done automatically or “programmatically”. The ad impressions will simply be won by the highest bidder.

What’s the difference between Ad Networks & DSPs?

Ad networks allow advertisers to buy ad inventory in bulk rather than one impression at a time. Put simply, ad networks gather ad inventories from various publishers, grouping them up and then selling them as slices to advertisers. However, not all ad networks support Real-Time Bidding (RTB).

DSPs are unique as they offer the same capabilities as what ad networks used to provide, with an addition to a suite of audience targeting options. The advantage of DSPs over ad networks is that they provide advertisers with the ability to do real-time bidding on ads, serve ads to a multitude of platforms, track and optimize – all under a single interface.

Some targeting options offered by a DSP include:

  • Geo-targeting
  • Demographic targeting
  • Keyword targeting
  • Contextual targeting
  • Device targeting
  • Re-targeting
  • and more.

DSPs are also used for retargeting campaigns. This is possible because they are able to manage large volumes of ad inventories and recognize ad requests with an ideal target audience, targeted by the advertiser.

Self-Serve VS Full-Serviced DSPs

There are two types of DSPs that you need to be aware of. Some DSPs offer a self-serve platform, which is an excellent way to manage your ad campaigns. Then there are managed or full-serviced DSPs, which can be a costly option.

The advantage to using a self-serve DSP is its lower cost entry. You don’t have to commit a large upfront advertising budget to get started. That said, you have to be responsible for the targeting, bidding, budgeting and optimizing of your ad campaign. Some advertisers prefer using a self-serve DSP because they prefer to manage their campaign in their own way.

Full-serviced DSPs on the other hand provides you with account managers that will dedicate their time to manage your campaign. With a full-serviced DSP, you will rely on the account manager towards the success of your campaign, from planning, budget distribution and choosing targeting options.

A full-serve DSP is usually more expensive as you’ll have to commit towards a minimum ad budget per campaign. Choosing to go for a full-serviced DSP means you lose some control of your campaigns. However, there are also advertisers who prefer this option because they do not want to dwell in any technical work.

What is a DMP?

A data management platform (DMP) is a platform that stores audience data, usually coming from multiple sources. It allows advertisers to create target audiences for their campaign based on 1st party and 3rd party audience data.

A DMP acts as a single platform that consolidates online and offline data from various advertisers, creating demographics, behavioral and affinity segments which are then used as targeting options in digital advertising. Performance data from live campaigns are then fed back into the DMP, improving the accuracy of the data.

Most DSPs usually integrate with a DMP to provide advertisers with super sharp audience targeting options. You’ll find the options to use a DMP within a self-serve DSP interface.

DMPs are becoming increasingly important for advertisers, as it allows advertisers to reach their specific target markets while reducing wastage in advertising.

More on Data Management Platforms (DMP)

What are the benefits of using a DSP?

The one thing that every marketer wants is to create an ad campaign to rightly target their customers and to achieve the desired results.

You cannot simply materialize your marketing goals through data and tools. But using a DSP can help achieve your marketing goals in a short period. Following are the benefits of a demand-side platform:

1. Global reach

Marketers can reach the global audience by advertising through DSPs.

Before partnering with a DSP, it is vital to understand what all formats and traffic verticals it supports.

Some DSP platforms have partnerships with local premium partners, while others connect with international Ad Exchanges.

You can choose a DSP platform after evaluating your requirements and understanding which features it has.

2. Effective targeting

Through a DSP advertisers can connect to different segments of audiences by applying various targeting criteria. Some of these include 

2.1 Demographic Targeting:

Targets based on demographic features such as age (or age group), job title, gender, education etc.

2.2 Geo-targeting

Geo-targeting enables you to target the audience based on their location data such as zip code, state, country etc.

2.3 Behavioural Targeting

Targets users based on their behavioural traits and personal choices.

2.4 Contextual Targeting: 

Placings ads that are important to the website/mobile app content, URL, or website category

2.5 Device Targeting: 

Shows users ads on specific devices to improve the personalization.

2.6 Retargeting: 

Targeting your existing customers

3. Improve brand integrity

Marketers can choose the type of inventory while purchasing from a DSP. As a result of this, you will be able to find an improved level of engagement with in-app ads over mobile or desktop ads.

Marketers can block fraudulent inventories by blacklisting and keep the brand image safe.

4. Advanced reporting and analytics

Even if your ad runs on different Ad Exchanges, DSPs can collect data from every individual source and then consolidate it to give a unified report.

With the real-time tracking feature on the DSP platform, marketers can track the actual performance of their ad campaigns instantly.

Along with this, the advertisers have full access to reports of a page view, website traffic, engagement rates, CTR etc.

List of Demand Side Platforms (DSP)

Every DSP have different features and capabilities. For example, different targeting options and inventories for different traffic like desktop and mobile. Most DSPs work with dynamic bids based on maximum CPM, set by the advertiser.

Some major DSPs we work with are:

Did we miss anything in this post? For any questions, just reach out to MobileAds.com and we’ll be happy to help.

Additional Resources:
Ad Server for Advertisers: Why Should You Use It
What is a Mobile Ad Server & Why Would You Need It
How to Create HTML5 Ads


Alvin is the Founder and CEO of MobileAds.com. He is a go-getter, and adventurous guy who believes in working smart to gain success in his business ventures and in life. He also founded RichMediaAds.com and MobileLanders.com.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Murthy

    Detail post. A very clear idea I have got about DSP and DMP now. Thanks for sharing useful posting.

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