Advertising Guest Columns
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What’s driving the great media migration towards independent ad tech?

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Independent ad tech is having a moment. So far, attention has mostly centred around those working on resolving identity issues before Google starts its third-party cookie demolition; especially combined efforts by The Trade Desk and Criteo. But as rising concerns about data use and antitrust issues continue to dent walled garden confidence, more industry players are considering diversifying both their revenue and stacks — media companies included.

Earlier this year, Vocento became the latest leading publisher to look beyond partnering with tech giants alone. Choosing an independent ad server and native supply-side platform (SSP) over walled garden offerings, the Spanish multi-media group has joined what’s shaping up to be a burgeoning European shift. See, for instance, steps by Régie 366 and Le Monde to integrate indie tools as their secondary adserver option for monetizing non-consented traffic.

The question is: what’s driving this growing interest in tech migration?

The trough of walled garden disillusionment

Anyone familiar with Gartner’s hype cycle will know cynicism about new technologies usually precedes widespread use. Walled gardens, however, are an exception to this rule. Buyers and sellers have long settled into mass adoption, often to the point of total reliance on advertising, analytics, and monetization suites from the likes of Google. But there is increasing recognition that the short-term gains of these convenient and intuitive systems come at a price.

For publishers, many questions about walled gardens are fuelled by recent scandals, especially around Google. The most recent is, of course, “Project Bernanke”, which allegedly tapped past bidding data from publishers’ servers without their knowledge to give Google’s buying exchange a competitive advantage. Last year also saw the tech heavyweight hit with two fines by the French Competition Authority for again leveraging privileged intel and not consulting publishers on fairer compensation as instructed. Interestingly, Google has not only accepted the anti-competitive judgement, but also made global changes in response, such as enhancing data access and interoperability for rival platforms.

Other elements are also at play. In addition to continued action from the European Commission and UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – including the CMA’s investigation that led Google to delay third-party cookie execution – there’s confusion about its stance on user identification. After repeatedly confirming it wouldn’t support alternative IDs and cross-site tracking, Google’s decision to explore ways for publishers to share encrypted signals with select third-party bidders left buyers and sellers in extreme uncertainty. Its recent announcement that Topics – which pinpoints and stores key user interests for three weeks – would replace its much-criticised FloC model also didn’t convince the market.

And it’s not just Google. Apple’s ATT update last year has also put increasing pressure on publishers, with the change to its IDFA opt-in reducing the amount of personal user data available to app publishers.

Putting the picture together, it’s clear publishers have reached a pivotal moment where they are ready to look beyond the walled gardens and take back control of their assets. And some are already seizing their chance to break free.

Embracing the indie tech scene

Sell-side desire for greater control and clarity is obviously far from new. In the last few years, publishers have increasingly leaned towards mechanisms that enable them to develop closer buyer relationships, such as programmatic direct and private marketplaces. This has enabled them to retain a tighter grip on media trading and reduce complexity. The main problem with doing so via walled garden tech is that it often involves loading data into blackbox systems and only getting minimal, anonymized insight in return. Implementing indie solutions, however, allows publishers, such as Vocento, to tackle this problem while staying in the driving seat.

For example, by placing an entirely independent stack at the center of its advertising approach, Vocento will have the advantage of maintaining control over all monetization operations and retaining data ownership. This means the media group can maximize use of consented first-party data for multiple purposes – harnessing insight as a key differentiator and basis for bolstering open and direct programmatic deals across environments, including web and in-app. Moreover, Vocento will also benefit from the enhanced transparency indie tech offers into both the effectiveness of monetization strategies and transactions.

Such complete oversight is essential to any publisher for many reasons. Firstly, visibility of performance ensures media players can accurately gauge how much value they deliver for buyers. They can then price inventory accordingly and optimize revenues. Secondly, they have a precise understanding of trading partners and terms, which is particularly vital considering walled gardens are known to conceal true costs. In fact, keeping fees deliberately opaque was one of the main charges leveled at Google in the Project Bernanke complaint. With a Texas-led investigation finding that Google takes a 19-22% cut of spend via AdX (plus a 32-40% fee through its Google Display Network), there is a sizeable chance publishers foot bills that aren’t justified by the value they gain. Indie vendors, however, offer granular transparency into the entire value chain, with their non-self-preferencing tactics ensuring publishers won’t lose revenue by switching providers.

Finally, more advanced independent platforms are also making it simpler for publishers to monetize their assets in varied situations. For instance, while Google has effectively blocked delivery of ads for non-consenting traffic – making it almost impossible for publishers to monetize that inventory –  several independent solutions allow publishers to still maximize yield, even after opt-outs.

The transition to independent tools indicates that publishers are fed up with poor transparency from walled gardens and determined to take charge of their own destiny. What indie players offer above all else is control over their most valuable assets: data, audience and content, with a focus on quality, transparency, innovation, and performance. As the wider media space follows this lead, we will inch closer to building more direct, secure, and accountable trading routes that provide better efficiency and rewards for everyone, as well as breathing fresh life into the open web.

Ingrid Couasnon
EVP EMEA, Smart AdServer

Smart is the leading independent adtech platform built to serve the interests of both buyers and publishers. Smart’s fully transparent platform and shared-interest business approach enables brands and premium publishers to get their fair share of ad value at every opportunity, on their terms. Smart works directly with hundreds of buyers and more than 1,000 publishers worldwide including Groupe Marie Claire, TracFone, Le Figaro, Leboncoin, Altice Media Publicité, and IMGUR to deliver display, video, native, and rich-media ads to over 50,000 sites and apps.