New Programmatic Advertising Study Reveals $6.6 Billion Cost of Bid Shading

Cognitiv Surveyed Digital Media Buyers and Industry Experts to Understand and Uncover the Financial Impact of Bid Shading on the Programmatic Media Landscape

NEW YORK--()--Bid shading, a pervasive optimization practice used in programmatic advertising, is likely leading to $6.6 billion in wasted advertising spend each year. In addition, this practice is not well understood or regarded by most digital media buyers according to a survey just released. The research was spearheaded by Cognitiv, the leading custom AI partner delivering algorithms unique to each advertiser, in partnership with independent research agency, Alter Agents, and queried more than 250 US digital media buyers to explore the complexity of today’s bidding environment and how current solutions are performing for advertisers. Considering that last year, advertisers spent $109.4 billion on programmatic advertising (excluding search), an evolved approach to bidding is essential.

Today, the primary method for programmatic advertising – an industry expected to represent 91 percent of total digital display ad spending in the US – involves a first-price auction. However, in order to avoid overbidding, many buyers employ bid shading, an algorithm that utilizes historical winning bid prices for a given advertising placement, suggesting an optimal bid for advertisers. The introduction of first-price auctions and bid shading aimed to rebalance the power dynamics between advertisers and publishers, while promising greater transparency in the bidding process.

Yet, the focus on transparent pricing provided by first-price auctions was found to shift the balance of power towards the publishers. Cognitiv’s research study found that 75% of digital media buyers believe the switch to first-price auctions has ultimately served publishers more than advertisers, and 64% attest to first-price auctions causing CPMs to increase. Overall, the study concluded that more than a quarter of digital media buyers indicated that the transition to first-price auctions in programmatic media buying impacted their company negatively.

Given rising CPMs and growing discontent among advertisers around the increasing costs of buying in a first-price auction environment, a new stop-gap solution was introduced by publishers: bid shading. Now an industry standard, bid shading serves as a middle ground between second-price and first-price auctions, helping to ensure that advertisers feel like they are getting a better deal on inventory while still preserving the first-price environment.

Cognitiv’s study found that a third of digital media buyers do not even know that bid shading exists, and only 35% feel extremely confident in their understanding of how a bid shading algorithm works and that they can explain it to others. Yet, 70% are paying an extra fee for this tool, assuming that it is saving them money.

The data further reveals that a vast majority of digital media buyers cannot agree on what bid shading does; some say:

  • It is a tool to adjust their bids for a first-price auction (33%)
  • It is an algorithm that optimizes their win-rate and CPM (32%)
  • It is a tool that manipulates their bid so they pay less (22%)
  • It just adds another fee to their bid (12%)

“Bid shading is a generic tool across all campaigns that does not take into account an advertiser’s category, unique campaign goals, or the specific individual being reached by the ad, but instead treats each campaign the same,” said Aaron Andalman, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at Cognitiv. “Advertisers need a permanent solution, one that is designed for advertisers by media buyers, not a solution that publishers offered as a stop-gap solution to keep advertisers placated.”

For more information and to download the report, visit here.


Alter Agents conducted a mixed-mode quantitative and qualitative research study, including five in-depth interviews with industry experts. The quantitative survey, commissioned by Cognitiv, surveyed 251 digital media buyers. Fieldwork was undertaken between March 8, 2023 to April 8, 2023.

About Cognitiv

Cognitiv is an AI advertising partner building custom algorithms unique to each advertiser. Cognitiv activates as a managed service DSP or a Dynamic Deal run through the DSP of your choice. Leveraging cutting-edge AI technology and rigorous science to more accurately predict consumer behavior, Cognitiv enables brands to connect with their audiences in more meaningful, relevant ways at scale. While our business is grounded in deep learning and scientific experimentation to avoid human bias, our ability to think and create differently is powering the evolution of marketing.


Justine Frostad


Justine Frostad