Is “premium” ad space a hoax?

Answer: It kinda is.

“Premium publishers” and “premium ad space” — these are often heard terms in programmatic advertising. But they are also dangerously fallacious ideas.

I’ll give three reasons why:

  1. A priori problem
  2. Uniformity problem
  3. Equilibrium problem

First, publishers define what is “premium” a priori (before results) which is not the right sequence to do it (a priori problem). The value of ad space — or the status, premium or not — should be determined a posteriori, or after the fact. Anything will risk biases due to guess-work.

Second, what is “premium” (i.e., works well) for advertiser A might be different for advertiser B, but the same ad space is always “premium” or not (uniformity problem). The value of ad space should be determined based on its value to the advertiser, which is not a uniform distribution.

Third, fixing a higher price for “premium” inventory skews the market – rational advertisers won’t pay irrational premiums and the publisher ends up losing revenue instead of gaining “premium” price (equilibrium problem). This is the exact opposite outcome the publisher hoped for, and arises from imbalance of supply and demand.


I defined premium as ad space that works well in regards to the advertiser’s objectives. Other definitions also exist, e.g. Münstermann and Würtenberg (2015) who argue the distinctive trait between premium and non-premium media is the degree of its editorial professionalism, so that amateur websites would be less valuable. In many cases, this is an incorrect classifier from the advertiser’s perspective — e.g., placing an ad on a blogger’s website (influencer marketing) can fairly easily produce higher rents than placing it alongside “professional” content. The degree of professionalism of the content is not a major cue for the consumers, and therefore one should define “premium” from the advertiser’s point of view — as a placement that works.


The only reason, I suspect, premium inventory is still alive is due to the practice of private deals where advertisers are more interested in volume than performance – these advertisers are more informed by assumptions than data. Most likely as the buyers’ level of sophistication increases, they become more inclined to market-based pricing which has a much closer association with performance than private deals.