Ad-Tech Firms Seek Financial Relief (and to Save the Cookie)

Coronavirus' impact on Q2 ad spend compounds existing stressors

google and facebook logos with stacks of money
Power in the online ad industry is weighted toward a few large names (but mainly Facebook and Google). Getty Images
Headshot of Ronan Shields

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Amid the chaos the coronavirus crisis has created in the media industry, separate intriguing petitions aimed at the media industry’s cash-rich platforms have recently emerged.

One request asks Google, Facebook and Amazon to implement more magnanimous policies that industry insiders hope will help reduce friction on Big Tech’s payment terms. Another asks Google to shelve its plans to depreciate cookies in its Chrome browser. Both requests have, at their hearts, a sense of fear of an uncertain world left in the wake of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Advertisers are slashing spend, impacting the entire industry and introducing a scenario where the rich are getting richer, while the poor go under. Indeed, many predict a sharp contraction in the total number of ad-tech companies in the years, if not months, ahead. These two requests are appeals to blunt the coming maelstrom.

Big Tech’s public posturing

The online media ecosystem’s duopoly of Facebook and Google have respectively pledged $100 million and $800 million ($250 million in ad credit) to small businesses—despite a report that both could take a $44 billion hit themselves—with each claiming the measures are in the spirit of hospitality.

Multiple sources believe this is a means to placate the long tail of advertisers—small mom-and-pop businesses that have to shutter their operations as entire economies go into lockdown—that collectively make up significant chunks of the behemoths’ revenue.

However, midsize players in the ecosystem are pressing for more. Industry standards body W3C, for example, is requesting that Google postpone its planned phasing out of third-party cookies in its industry-leading Chrome browser by 2022.

The move is part of Google’s plan for answering growing calls for privacy. But the use of third-party cookies in ad targeting is one of the cornerstones of programmatic advertising, and phasing them out would challenge every sector of the online economy.

Speaking earlier with Adweek, Ratko Vidakovic, founder of AdProfs, noted how the current global economic chaos could prompt Google to grant a “stay of execution.”

“One thing is that Google is not known for sticking to its timelines historically,” he noted. “They set the rules, so they can extend things, and they probably will, because it would just be too cruel to continue. Ad-tech companies are already in a bad place, and you would have to think how are they going to re-architect their systems for a cookie-less world?”

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A grisly Q2 lies ahead

Meanwhile, a second petition lobbying the industry’s largest names to extend payment terms for smaller players—many of whom rely on platforms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google as traffic sources—also gained traction in recent days.

“Within the industry, it’s well known that Google, Facebook and Amazon have very strict policies around payment terms. … Collectively, they have millions of customers and need the cash flow in order to pay themselves, third-party publishers, and other costs of running the business,” reads a statement on the petition. “With the recent dip in the market and our time with coronavirus so far, it may be a bit less right now.”

The petition has yet to be submitted to the three industry behemoths.

Data from machine learning platform Ezoic depicts an overall decline in ad spend from mid-March through to the end of the month, traditionally a period that sees the beginning of a rise in media budgets as the industry exits the seasonal low of Q1.

More recently, a survey by the IAB found that 24% of buy-side participants paused all ad spend before the end of Q1, with some continuing the cessation into the following quarter.

The preparation for such a downward trend—albeit few would have predicted such a steep contraction—got underway when supply-side platforms started to cut credit lines to demand-side players in the wake of the high-profile bankruptcies of such companies in recent years.

As the coronavirus crisis began to impact Western economies, some ad-tech firms started to propose extended payment terms and rescinded revenue guarantees, while others are turning to factoring companies, outfits that take ownership of invoices in return for more readily available liquidity.

Acting against self-interest

Factoring companies are witnessing a surge in demand. Hanna Kassis, CEO of Oarex, said his outfit was in favor of the petition, even though it would appear against his business interests.

Online publishers typically have to wait anywhere between 30 and 120 days to be paid by independent ad-tech firms for inventory they have sent to platforms such as Rubicon Project, Xandr and even Google’s DoubleClick ad stack, he explained.

Compare this with the largest traffic sources such as Facebook and Google, which often require payment terms of Net 7 days, or comparatively swinging credit limits.

“Even though it’s against my company’s best interests, it’s ultimately good for the industry,” added Kassis. “We’re all in this together.”

The ongoing colossal global shock has led many economists to compare the coronavirus crisis to the Great Depression of the last century, almost 90 years ago. But as hopes for a V-shaped recovery begin to wane, what’s clear is that a significant amount of players will have to set aside their immediate self-interest to begin moving the arrows in the right direction.

@ronan_shields Ronan Shields is a programmatic reporter at Adweek, focusing on ad-tech.