Campaign Types: Direct vs. Non-Guaranteed

As my mother kindly taught me, “green is the color of money.” Who wouldn’t want more money, right?

There’s no doubt that as we surf the internet and come across ads, someone is getting paid and someone else is doing the paying. In ad speak, our internet experiences spark a series of transactions for websites and advertisers. If you work on the publisher (or website’s) side – how can you get involved in this money mix?

Whether you’re shopping online, reading the latest sports updates or scrolling through your Facebook feed, every day we are (kindly) bombarded by ads. For most of these sites, these ads provide an additional revenue stream to support a variety of functions — the development of new products, content, staffing, or site upkeep. You may notice that these ads are relevant to sites you’re browsing, your demographic, or even you as an individual. Someone is paying to target YOU as the user (extremely creepy, or extremely smart?)

When I first started in this industry a few years ago, I was under the impression (pun intended) that websites paid brands and advertisers to advertise on their sites, or better yet, that the websites simply made all of the ads themselves. I was severely wrong. These ad campaigns – or transactional relationships between publishers and brands – are bought and sold through two distinct ways: direct and non-guaranteed.


Direct campaigns are predetermined ad deals. A direct campaign is a fixed transaction between one brand and one website with defined orders: a set time frame, a fixed campaign budget/spend and a guaranteed impression amount. The main characteristic is that direct campaigns are one-time, guaranteed deals from the brand to the publisher. The brand pays the publisher to serve ads on its website.

Oftentimes direct campaigns are negotiated between the publisher and the individual brand (or the brand’s representing ad agency or trading desk). Usually the brand asks for a proposal request from the publisher, which outlines the types of ad units the site can run, ad inventory in the desired campaign flight (or time period), and rate or campaign spend. If the brand decides to move forward with the campaign, a formal Insertion Order (IO) will be sent to the publisher, outlining final campaign specifications.

Here’s a mock example between one of our education sites,, and There’s a natural fit with the student audience, and Staples would like to run a back to school campaign from August – October 2015. Discussed metrics would include the following:

  • Campaign: and Staples®
  • Dates: 8/1/15 – 10/31/15
  • Campaign spend: $20,000
  • Ad impressions: 4,000,000 (served evenly among 728×90, 300×250 and 160×600 ATF units)
  • Geotarget: United States only
  • Device: Desktop only

Although Staples’ $20,000 campaign spend on EasyBib is a significant amount of revenue, some factors to keep in mind are the campaign flight (the campaign only serves for those 3 months) and the allotted 4,000,000 ad impressions. If EasyBib has larger spikes in traffic, there may be other methods to monetize the extra ad impressions. If your site has reputable and lasting brand presence, consider crafting a knowledgeable and savvy ad sales team to reach out to potential brands.


The word non-guaranteed has slowly replaced the dreaded term “remnant” in digital ad speak. Personally, I prefer using “remnant” because non-guaranteed campaigns represent any available ad impressions that are not transacted in the traditional direct campaign manner. Others refer to this type of campaign as programmatic, or decision-based buying.

Unlike the fixed characteristics of direct campaigns, non-guaranteed ad buys are indirect transactions between brands and publishers. In direct campaigns, the publisher is transacting directly with the brand (or its representing media agency/trading desk) for a one time chunk of a website’s inventory. For non-guaranteed, the publisher works with intermediary ad companies to reach these brands. The intermediary ad companies act as the middlemen between publishers and brand dollars to facilitate the buying and selling of ads. These intermediaries are also known as ad exchanges, ad networks and SSPs (which we define in our digital advertising terms glossary).

You may think, if a publisher can hustle for direct deals, why would it need non-guaranteed ad campaigns? This is an issue our team at SBM faces every day. Our educational sites have strong brand presence and following, but unfortunately face challenges of the “savviness” and conversion goals brands expect through direct campaigns, as well as “long tail” publisher sites defined by long user sessions and deep pageviews/impression volumes.

If we only sold our ads through direct campaigns we would not have enough ads to display for every user, resulting in blanks on the page. If we could sell everything 100% direct, we would; to be completely transparent, only 5% of our sites’ ads are sold directly. The remainder are bought and sold through leveraging our rates and ad partner relationships through the non-guaranteed channels.

These non-guaranteed demand sources buy on behalf of the brand. Rather than a fixed, one-time deal, these sources serve open-endedly and as long as the publisher enables them to do so at negotiated rates. We blend our ad setup through direct campaigns and non-guaranteed sources, which we organize through managed demand stacks.

There are many players involved in buying, selling and serving ads. Whether you are a publisher looking to boost site traffic through buying ad campaigns or a publisher hoping to draw advertisers and other brands to your site for campaign deals, understanding how ad campaigns are bought and sold are essential.

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