Peeking Into the Walled Gardens

Will upcoming brand safety reviews across Big Tech's biggest platforms start to level the playing field with independent publishers?

Data audits, data officers, AI funding, metrics disputes and measurement shortfalls. Just another week in digital advertising. Let‘s get into it!

Who Let the Watchdogs Out?

One of the consistent narratives to emerge from all the discussions over the future of ad targeting in a post-cookie, post-IDFA and so on world is that no matter what, the walled gardens win. That may be true, but these closed-loop-marketing behemoths are about to get some of the same scrutinies the open web has had to endure for years.

Recently, Ad Age reported that verification vendors Integral Ad Science and DoubleVerify were vying for the motherload of brand safety havens — Facebook. Now, as that business remains up for grabs, Twitter is about to get the full brand safety audit treatment from the Media Rating Council (MRC), reports Digiday. These types of evaluations sound about as welcome as a trip to the dentist, but in the case of the secretive “we can‘t let you see our algorithm” Big Tech platforms — it seems downright painful.

“There‘s a lot of concern on the part of these platforms about our required level of access,” MRC Executive Director and CEO, George Ivie, told Digiday. “These platforms are extremely sensitive.”

It remains to be seen how sensitive brands will actually be once the results of these audits come to light. Web publishers have complained they are held to a higher standard than the duopoly when it comes to ad adjacencies. Advertisers have long known that their ads on Facebook could show up next to some hateful post from Aunt Martha, for example, and they‘ve been loath to do anything about it.

Data Boss Baby

Just how crucial is a data-driven, software-centric approach in the future of the media industry? Well, roughly a week after The New York Times nabbed a former Facebook executive to serve as its CTO, NBCUniversal (NBCU) has tapped Dentsu veteran John Lee as the company‘s first Chief Data Officer.

This move certainly feels like a statement from an old-school media company that likes to signal it‘s leading a digital charge. In recent years, NBCU has been a leader in programmatic selling for linear TV and in urging the industry to move beyond relying solely on Nielsen metrics for measurement. In March, the company made noise by announcing a partnership with/endorsement of the buzzy data warehousing company Snowflake.

John Lee will be tasked with looking to centralize NBCU‘s vast pools of data, including everything from digital ad IDs to data from theme parks. ”‹”‹“What NBCU is now doing is putting data front and center as an enterprise asset,” Chief Business Officer Krishan Bhatia told The Wall Street Journal.

It certainly makes sense to prioritize data usage in a giant organization like NBCU. But one wonders whether roles like this one will eventually go the way of the early 2000s‘ “Chief Digital Officers” — since, presumably, data will underpin nearly every aspect of advertising in the future — and thus being a data guy/gal will be part of everyone‘s job at some point down the road.

Pre-cookie Apocalypse?

We‘ve all been talking about just how challenging things are going to get for digital advertising when cookies are finally put out to pasture and the regulators really start locking things down. Perhaps the answer is — can it be much worse than now? Consider a recent bleak report from the browser extension company Adalytics, which followed the web surfing behavior of a group of consumers and then conducted surveys on their ad experiences.

It appears that digital advertising is struggling with many of the basics. Morning Brew, which reported on the Adalytics study, cited examples where digital advertising is struggling with many of the basics of targeted advertising. In one instance, 90.5 percent of the shoe company Merino’s ads were targeted to the wrong gender. And in another, the National Rifle Association (NRA) repeatedly sent ads to “luxury enthusiasts” who had little to no interest in guns.

According to an Advertiser Perceptions report conducted last spring — just months before Google announced its cookie extension — “Many publishers and advertisers had done little or nothing to develop a first-party data strategy or test new targeting and measurement solutions,” reported AdExchanger. Yet, the vast majority of respondents felt very confident about the industry‘s future. Guys, I know the pandemic made us all foggy, but what gives?

Maybe AI will help. A startup called BlueOcean, which uses machine learning to help companies like Microsoft and Bloomingdale‘s figure out what people think of their ad campaigns, just raised $15 million, per Business Insider.

As for the post-cookie world, it doesn‘t sound all that much better. Sarah Rose, SVP at the IPG-owned Kinesso, predicts that tracking consumers‘ identities is going to be a highly patchworked endeavor in the near future. “The elimination of third-party cookies, when it finally happens in late 2023, will be a significant blow to advertisers‘ measurement practices,” she said on the AdExchanger podcast, AdExchanger Talks. By that time, tracking consumers online is “going to be a hodgepodge of site-level data, CDP-level data, DMP-level data.”

That sounds… less than efficient, but we‘ll see. Until then, we‘ll see you next week.