Why A Unified ID Will Never Work - And Why Walled Gardens Will

James Avery
James Avery
Why A Unified ID Will Never Work - And Why Walled Gardens Will

The digital ad industry seems faced with an existential choice - go Google’s way, and give up your destiny while bearing the consequences.

Or band together and fight.

It’s that second route that is leading to some unexpected enthusiasm. Could the beleaguered publishers of the web, often left to fight for the revenue scraps Google and Facebook don’t get, really join forces and level the playing field? Maybe even put the walled gardens on their heels a bit?

I’m sorry to be a downer - but I think we’re kidding ourselves. The idea of every publisher and ad tech company getting together and agreeing on a new unified ID - whether via LiveRamp, The Trade Desk or dozen other alternatives –is about as likely as Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook becoming best friends.

I’m talking of course about the impending end of the third-party cookie, big changes in how advertisers can track mobile ads (thanks to Apple) as well as regulation.

The background

There’s no doubt that digital advertising is staring down a fundamental shift/threat to its business model. This industry has largely built on its precise targeting power, and that power may be set to disappear. Just look at the recent layoffs and restructuring over at Criteo, a company built on retargeting.

It’s certainly understandable to find any way possible to hold onto this deterministic potency. It’s scary to imagine going back to a time when publishers would have to sell ads by using content as a proxy (men visit sports sites, right) or by using audience surveys and the like –especially as titans like Google, Facebook, and Amazon will keep their logged-in user advantages post cookie.

This is why there are roughly 20 different ID alternative projects in the works all vying to fill this coming void.

It’s also understandable that the ad industry is wary of the cookie-replacement solution that Google is spearheading – because funnily enough, Google tends to do things that favor Google (like any company would).

So let’s instead take our hard-earned user data like subscriber info, email addresses and/or wireless numbers, pool it all together and come up with a new consistent way to identify web users –then let the ad targeting begin!

Wait a second here.

This is wishful thinking

All we’ve heard as of late is how every brand and publisher wants to be a direct-to-consumer brand. Not only do these companies want data on their customers in order to market to them, but they also want the trust and long-term relationship this promises.

Now they’ll all of a sudden start sharing this info? The New York Times and Dollar Shave Club and Hubble Contacts are all going to work together so that tons of smaller brands and blogs and whomever can benefit? I don’t see this as likely.

I don’t care how many encryption and non-PII steps this process promises – this is not going to happen. It’s not in these companies' long-term interests.

To be sure, there are some signs of big players coming on board. For instance, The Washington Post has committed while exchanges such as Magnite and OpenX have endorsed the project. You can make a case that advertisers –theoretically –would like to be able to continue to target specific audiences online –especially on brand-safe properties.

However, think about the history here. The airlines have been trying to create a unified way of booking flights, called NDC, for the better part of a decade. How much time did the cable TV world try to create a common ad platform in Canoe before giving up?

Closer to home, how many premium, brand-safe ad sales consortiums have we seen, only to get very little traction (and barely get noticed by the duopoly). From QuadrantONE to Pangea to Brand.net to ShortTail Media to TrustX – inevitably, individual publishers always prioritize their own business and struggle to enact change. Even ads.txt, a seemingly non-competitive effort aimed at stamping out ad fraud, has struggled to get mass adoption.

And If you don’t get mass participation, these UID projects are DOA. Further, Google has come out against the concept of many of these UID projects – which often use email as the identification basis.

The stakes

To be sure, the stakes are a lot higher this time around - if your entire business feels suddenly vulnerable, you may be a lot more inclined to prioritize a consortium.

Still, I know this sounds negative, but I think we’re better off. Instead, it’s time to let more walled gardens bloom.

Think about it. As dominant as Facebook, Google and now Amazon are, other ad platforms like Pinterest, Snap and TikTok are all in a position to increasingly steal share.

Meanwhile, we’re already seeing a wealth of retailers follow the Amazon path and dive into advertising, using their robust consumer data - think Walmart, Target, Walgreens, CVS, UberEats, Instacart, etc. We’re likely to see lots more of these mini-gardens pop-up.

The solution

We think building a custom ad platform can be a win for publishers and brands because they’ll have more options and better control of their own revenue destinies. Adopting a new independent standard — with Google or otherwise — is liable to change again in the future, and we'll be having this same debate again.

The reason we are in this spot is because so many of us relied on Google and cookies. Publishers who can pivot strongly to direct-sold ads and proprietary data will be much less impacted by arbitrary changes driven by tech giants or lawmakers.

It won’t work for everyone, and maybe won’t be a fair fight, but this is a competitive business. The publishers with high-revenue, successful ad platforms will have more money to grow than ones that don’t.

Better to win on your own merits than end up riding someone else's wave and hoping you don’t crash.

Disclaimer: a similar article originally appeared on 3/09/2021 in AdExchanger

James Avery
James Avery

James has been a thought leader in ad tech for over fifteen years. He is currently the CEO and founder of Kevel. An engineer by trade, he built Kevel with the goal of making the Internet a better place through tools that make it easy to monetize without resorting to page-slowing, data-harvesting banner ads.