Brian O’Kelley built AppNexus Inc. to help companies advertise anywhere on the internet. Its software plugged into virtually every digital ad-trading hub, including those from Google, the biggest ad seller, and Google’s YouTube video service. By 2014, AppNexus was valued at $1.2 billion.
Then, in 2015, Google stopped letting companies buy ads on YouTube using outside software. The move got more marketers to use Google ad services. It also created a glaring hole for AppNexus: The startup could no longer give customers access to the largest supply of online video. It never really recovered.
“They crushed our growth and ruined our product,” said O’Kelley, who stepped down as AppNexus chief executive officer last year. YouTube represented a huge portion of the video inventory that AppNexus offered to advertisers. Those marketers couldn’t just ignore YouTube “because it’s pretty much a monopoly in that space,” he added. “It’s not a supply-and-demand problem. It’s a ‘You just broke our entire business’ problem.’”
The story is familiar to advertising and media entrepreneurs who built businesses around YouTube, only to be hobbled when the video giant changed the rules of engagement. Google used YouTube’s popularity to lure creators, media companies and tech firms onto the service, gaining access to more videos and ad space. YouTube then used that supply to control ad prices and amass data about viewers, squeezing out anyone that tried to compete, according to interviews with more than a dozen partners, rivals and former employees. Many asked not to be identified discussing sensitive information about a powerful industry player.
YouTube didn’t wipe out competition in one fell swoop, or act maliciously, according to these people. Instead, YouTube made decisions to consolidate the video ad-buying process, with little regard for partners or competition, and few regulatory checks. That left a graveyard of failed companies in its wake and fewer choices for advertisers, the people said.
In digital video advertising, YouTube has no peers. The U.S. market harnessed $16.3 billion in ad spending last year, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. YouTube accounted for the majority of that. Globally, the video giant generated $16 billion in 2018 sales, BMO Capital Markets estimates.
YouTube disputes this depiction of its dominance. The company said it shares more than half its ad sales with video producers, and competes in a much bigger market than just online video ads. “Viewers have never had more choice when it comes to where to watch their favorite videos,” YouTube spokeswoman Andrea Faville wrote in an email. “Similarly, advertisers have a wide and growing array of options, including traditional television, which still accounts for the majority of video ad spend.”