How an Open Approach Can Help Independents Survive as Walled Gardens Decline

Opinion: Making life easier for advertisers is crucial when measuring up against the household names of digital media

57.7% of online media spend goes to Facebook and Google, a statistic likely to remain largely unchanged in the near term. Getty Images
Headshot of Ronan Shields

Facebook and Google’s share of online ad spend is slowly eroding, but that’s mainly due to another walled garden: Amazon. But how can independents get a larger share of the action amid demand for a more diverse marketplace?

Despite ongoing concerns over trust and transparency in digital advertising, CMOs are still willing to invest more of their budgets in digital advertising. Gartner’s CMO Spend study 2018-19 suggests budgets will remain relatively stable over the next 12 months, with online ad spend surpassing offline. “Measurability” is often cited as the rationale for such investment decisions.

The report also contains one key line that explains the persistence of the industry’s largest names pocketing the lion’s share of this spend: “Marketers’ innovation intent isn’t matched by their innovation capabilities.”

Per eMarketer, 57.7 percent of online media spend goes to “the duopoly” of Facebook and Google, a statistic likely to remain largely unchanged over the next two years, albeit with an ever-increasing challenge from Amazon.

However, such spending patterns contrast greatly with the growing furor over brand safety, performance measurement, fraud and other missteps.

Just this week, Facebook felt compelled to publicize its efforts to tackle controversial content on the platform and Google-owned YouTube has issued several public mea culpas in the recent past.

Big-name marketers in the industry often use their lofty status to fire a shot across the bows of walled garden providers, but the implementation of most marketing strategies is carried out by those much further down the food chain. And away from the public posturing, walled garden providers make it relatively easy for junior marketers under pressure to prove results.

This helps explain Facebook’s and Google’s ability to pull through scandal after scandal while still maintaining a grip on the lion’s share of ad spend, in my opinion.

Put simply, both parties have the scale and identity data—albeit it walled off and not universally measurable by third parties—to provide junior marketers with the data sets that help them show their bosses they are getting the job done.

As one source told me recently, “Facebook and Google just make it easy,” but things are starting to change, slowly but surely.

The challenge of performing advertising attribution at scale and outside such closed platforms remains elusive. A recent ANA survey highlights identity management as a key priority for advertisers, and therein lies an opportunity for independents.

Conversations I’ve had with sources over several months indicate a widespread awareness among advertisers of the need to reduce their reliance on the industry’s walled gardens. What’s more, they are also starting to realize that using open source technology is a necessary measure to achieve this goal.

This is much easier said than done, as the difficulties of data portability plus the potential for all-out data loss are very real, and progressive marketers are starting to realize that calculated risks are necessary.

As Unilever CMO Keith Weed put it, “We need to be able to see above the walled gardens,” and from conversations I have had with media buyers over a period of time, many are starting to take the necessary steps in that direction.

This is why it’s interesting to watching the alliance of companies with initiatives such as DigiTrust, the Advertising ID Consortium or even the pairing of Adobe and Flashtalking.

The common thread that binds such ventures is the advocacy of open technologies, and the groundswell of such initiatives indicates a shake-up of the status quo in the mid-to-distant future.

A lot of political hurdles have to be cleared before such tech is widely implemented, but it certainly appears as if the early seeds for such a change are being sewn.

In terms of thriving amid such a backlash against the walled garden, an Adweek piece from earlier this week summed up an appropriate ethos: Find a niche and then optimize around user experience.

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