How Sortable wants to take the pain out of digital advertising

Advertising on the web is a thicket of ad networks and middlemen. This Kitchener, Ont.-based company wants to cut to the chase

Man using a tablet to look at metrics

(Bernhard Lang/Getty)

Christopher Reid has no small ambition when it comes to his company, online advertising startup Sortable.

“Things are very broken in the ad space in publishing in general,” he says. “Our goal is to start cleaning things up.”

He’s referring to the overly complicated jumble that advertising has become. In order to get their messages out, advertisers have to deal with a host of middle-men, from agencies and trading desks to buying networks and supply platforms.

Each of those then takes a cut, which ultimately means less money making its way from the advertiser to the publisher at the other end. It also results in abuses, like websites plastered with ads or auto-play videos, all of which serves to alienate visitors.

The system isn’t working well for anybody, Reid says.

“It’s like an Olympic sport, trying to deploy ads effectively.”

Sortable, based in Kitchener, Ont., is promising to take the pain out of the process by automating much of it. The company is trying to replace all of those middle-men with algorithms that intelligently monitor and appraise ad networks.

Sortable’s system is sort of like a dating website in that it analyzes publishers’ sites and pairs them with the most suitable partners.

Every time an ad is displayed to a viewer, the system analyzes the available ad inventory and decides which network will serve the ad with the highest return.

Sortable takes a 15-% cut of gross revenue, but Reid says publishers end up netting 30% more than they do through the traditional system because it’s simpler and there are fewer moving parts to feed. 

The system is being tested by a number of big publishers, he adds, including 10 that rank within ratings firm ComScore’s top 500 sites.

Sortable is growing fast as a result, going from just three employees last year to 25 now, and revenue increasing 40% month over month, Reid says. The company is profitable, with all of its funding coming from cash flow, he adds.

Sortable started operations in earnest in late 2014, after a rebrand and shift away from its original purpose. Reid founded the original company, Snapsort, in 2009 as a niche-oriented web publisher, with individual sites focusing on reviews of cameras, phones, cars and the like.

He sold the company in 2012 for an undisclosed sum to Texas-based Rebellion Media, but after a year of floating around with seemingly no purpose, he decided to buy the company back. He didn’t want Snapsort—since renamed Sortable—to wither away.

The new start meant a new direction as well, with Sortable going after the ad network business itself, rather than just trying to play within it. That decision came mainly from Reid’s own experience and dissatisfaction with how the world of online advertising is evolving.

The advent of Facebook’s Instant Articles, where publishers will now host their content directly on Facebook rather than on their own websites, and Google following suite with its Accelerated Mobile Pages project are both dangerous new developments, he says.

The two web giants are introducing these features to give users faster access to articles and content, which will ultimately cost them less data, but there’s also a good deal of self-interest involved.

More and more of the web will either reside on the two companies’ own platforms, or they’ll increasingly dictate the web’s evolution.

“Publishers aren’t really going to have a choice. They’re going to get steamrolled and move more and more of their dependence onto these platforms,” Reid says. “For publishers, that’s a very scary thing.”