Viewpoint: Duelling the Duopoly

Not that it’s going to happen any time soon, but the vast majority of the ad tech industry would no doubt throw the party to end all parties if a couple of companies playing in their space – namely Google and Facebook – were to simply disappear. Because any delight in the seemingly unstoppable growth in digital ad spend – of which mobile is an increasingly large subset – has to be tempered with the fact that most of it goes to the two aforementioned companies.

eMarketer estimates that between them, Facebook and Google will take 49 per cent of digital ad budgets in 2017. And when you look around for who looks likely to pose any sort of threat to the duopoly, the names you hear mentioned most often are Amazon and, to a lesser extent, Snapchat and Oath, the company formed out of Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo. So the duopoly becomes a quadropoly or even quintopoly then, but that still leaves everyone else fighting over the crumbs of what’s left. 

What unites these companies is access to rich, deep data on the people advertisers seek to reach across their platforms, and in an effort to compete, other players in the ad tech space are fighting back.

In Germany, publisher Axel Springer is part of an alliance that also includes airline Lufthansa, car-maker Daimler, insurance firm Allianz and telco Deutsche Telekom. The premise is simple enough – by pooling their first party data, each of the companies in the alliance will be able to get closer to the vast amounts of user data that Facebook and Google have access to.

Just today, another German company, mobile-first data exchange Adsquare, launched the Adsquare Data Alliance. This will aggregate deterministic (i.e. logged in, not assumed) data from app publishers and validated third-party data from Adsquare’s list of data partners, to “tap accurate audience data at scale”. Audience segments will be available via Adsquare’s self-service Audience Management Platform, and also directly through leading DSPs and DMPs.

“With an abundance of data in the industry being scattered through data silos, its becoming increasingly difficult for advertisers to employ one-to-one, people-based advertising at scale,” says Adsquare CEO and co-founder, Tom Laband. “The Adsquare Data Alliance stands for both accurate data and reach and gives advertisers the freedom of choice.”

This is not the first such attempt from within the ad tech industry to pool consumer data. Back in 2014, Criteo unveiled plans for a cross-device attribution solution based on email addresses pooled by its advertiser clients. At the time, the company worked with 6,500 advertisers and 7,000 publishers and invited its advertisers to pool email address data and then share the pooled data, in order to identify the same user accessing their website across multiple devices.

“Advertisers will give us the email addresses anonymously, these will be encrypted and sit in the cloud and turned into a key,” Criteo’s then-UK MD, Jon Buss, told Mobile Marketing at the time. “The advertisers are pooling their data; they will put in a small amount and get out a huge amount of value.”

Other companies, while not sitting on quite as much data as Facebook and Google, look well positioned to offer some sort of a challenge. Oath, as mentioned is one, though many are waiting to see how the company’s offering unfolds. Another is Viant Media, part of Time Inc. Thanks to its acquisition of MySpace in 2011, Viant holds data on 1.2bn registered users, verified quarterly against data from Experian and other data partners, and from their interactions with Time Inc’s 100 or so publisher brands. Added to that, with its purchase of mobile-first DSP Adelphic, it has a way for advertisers to execute quickly on mobile against the Viant data. 

The problem for the ad tech industry at large, however, is that no matter what they or the duopoly do, it doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in the power that Facebook and Google wield. The brand safety fiasco on YouTube earlier this year hit Google briefly as advertisers pulled campaigns while Google got its act together, but the damage does not seem to have been lasting. Similarly, Facebook was found wanting more than once last year over flaws in the way it measures its audiences and their engagement with ad content, but still the ad dollars keep flowing in.

As WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell said on an analyst call following the release of its disappointing half-year results last week: “There is increasing scrutiny from clients around the effectiveness of digital. But YouTube’s travails over brand safety, fake news, value, viewability, verification, transparency and the Google and Facebook measurement questions, these issues have not stopped or pegged growth of Google and Facebook in our media investment.Despite the uncertainties, this hasn’t checked the growth or importance of the duopoly in digital media.”

Sorrell went on to say that WPP would spend more on media (over $6bn) with Google than any other outlet this year, with Facebook moving into second position with a spend of over $2bn.

And when I spoke to Viant VP Toby Benjamin a couple of weeks ago, he conceded that the message that there is more to digital advertising that Facebook and Google is a hard one to get across, telling me: “I’m not sure the message that there are alternatives [to Facebook and Google] is getting through but the one about ID and people-based being the future is getting through. I’m not seeing a single agency or advertiser who is comfortable with the old ways. The cookie is dead, its gone, all the growth is coming from mobile.

“We are seeing Verizon buying Yahoo and AOL, Salesforce and Adobe moving into the ad tech space and the buy side reacting with Dentsu Aegis acquiring Merkle. The whole marketplace is drastically and rapidly trying to pivot into ID-based marketing.”

As for those alternatives, they exist, he said, but there aren’t many of them. “To be a people-based platform you need the consumer relationship at scale and their consent, so if you take that into account, you can probably count the alternatives on one or maybe two hands. There’s not a huge amount of players who can play definitively in that space, but I would put ourselves in that bucket, together with Amazon, Oath if it gets its act together and a few others.”

So don’t be surprised to see the rest of the ad tech industry fighting back against the duopoly. Equally, though, don’t be surprised to see the duopoly holding firm.