In this special Conversations episode of Media Voices, sponsored by Permutive, we explore the ‘Great Privacy Reset’.
The tension between advertising and privacy has hit a boiling point in recent years. Invasive tracking across the web and increasingly aggressive ways of building data profiles of consumers has been seen as standard in the industry, with companies racing to get more data than ever about people. But at the same time as awareness has grown about these methods, consumers are pushing back, and we’ve recently seen initiatives both from regulators demanding better control and fairer use of data, and the platforms themselves putting measures in place to restrict and prevent certain types of tracking.
This episode, we hear from Jana Meron, Senior VP of Programmatic and Data Strategy at Insider Inc, Nicholas Flood, Future plc’s Global Ad Product and Revenue Operations Director, and Joe Root, Founder of Permutive. They talk about where these issues arose from, some of the challenges they face implementing the changes, and how we can all work towards a sustainable advertising ecosystem for the future.
Permutive are rebuilding data in programmatic advertising to protect privacy. As the only Audience Platform built on patented and privacy-preserving on-device technology, they enable premium advertisers and publishers to plan, build and activate cohorts — all while keeping everyone’s data safe. You can learn more about their work, case studies and resources at permutive.com.
Part 1: How did we get here?
Before we get into exploring how publishers are handling the new privacy-first world, we wanted to ask, how did we get into this situation in the first place? Permutive’s Joe Root takes us back to 2013, where he could already see that the ecosystem would need rebuilding:
Joe Root: We saw two problems within ad tech. The first was a problem of consent, that effectively there were all these companies who were tracking everything you were doing online, and had no relationship with you. And in light of regulation coming out of Europe by the GDPR, that seemed like a very unstable foundation for the ecosystem.
The second piece, which we recognised pretty early on, was the way that data was being shared and used was leaking at enormous scale. So that open RTB protocol, coupled with cookies and identifiers, was effectively leaking user data at scale, which again, regulators were very unlikely to be massive fans of.
Because of that, we made a bet that there was a pretty big opportunity in the fact that you were going to need to rebuild ad tech, and that traditional ad tech and data businesses were going to become increasingly hard to run. And that actually, the new winners in the ecosystem would be first party data owners, and specifically publishers.
Jana Meron has been in charge of the data strategy at Insider for almost a decade. Although she has seen some improvements in the ad industry recently such as greater transparency and ads.txt, she thinks that publishers need to take some responsibility for the surge in consumer demand for privacy:
Jana Meron: Part of the reason that we are in the situation where we’re at now, where consumers are saying, ‘We don’t want to be followed around the web’ is partly our fault. Because we took advantage of the data that was given to us in the third party cookie, and what we were able to do.
We sort of forgot about explaining the value exchange to consumers for advertising. And so we wound up just pissing a bunch of people off.
Publishers may not have helped the situation, but as Joe points out, the way the advertising industry has been operating over the past decade has been geared to devalue the work publishers do right from the start:
Joe Root: One of the flaws of the first version of ad tech was effectively that you could aggregate all this publisher data, and in some ways, all publishers were being pulled together, and then data was being shared. That’s actually what led to publishers becoming commoditised, and their value disappearing.
Nick Flood joined Future in August 2020, having previously been the MD of Digital for Dennis Publishing. He’s long been an active voice for UK publishers within organisations like the Acceptable Ads Committee and the Association of Online Publishers, and believes that recent awareness among the public has been a big driver of the changes we’re seeing happen today:
Nick Flood: I think if you look at the wider market, a lot of people really don’t understand what happens in the ad world, so the common person on the street might not get what happens to their data. I think a lot of it has been exposed through some of the privacy and data leaks that some of the big companies have had in the past. When a data leak hits the 10 o’clock news, then everyone starts talking about it.
Of course, the introduction of GDPR was a key milestone I think, and really put privacy at the forefront of consumer’s thoughts. Now I’d say, although people still think about it – the consent frameworks are there – I question how many people really understand what they’re opting into or opting out of.
Whether people understand or not, the advertising industry is going to look very different in a few years’ time. Google’s third-party cookie deadline is just a few months away, and we almost certainly haven’t seen the last of regulations like the GDPR and the CCPA.
But whatever you think about the changes that are coming in, they are inevitable, and long overdue, as Joe explains:
Joe Root: I think the broader industry, ad tech companies in particular, have been somewhat slow to take action here. But I think if you look at why, the industry wasn’t built for privacy, so this requires a massive re architecture.
If you look at large companies like your Oracles and your Salesforces, they recognise that privacy is a huge shift in the ecosystem. Last year, regulators really forced Oracle to pull its third party data business out of Europe. But I think for independents, there’s still a desire to try and keep things running as they have. So if you look at the way consent management platforms are set up today, they somewhat optimised for consent for the ecosystem, rather than maybe the transparency the GDPR was hoping for.
Similarly, if you look at this push for alternative identifiers to replace the cookie in the bidstream, again, that’s a desire just to keep things running in the way they have, and doesn’t represent really any significant rearchitecting for privacy.
The regulation is unstoppable. Regulation can be slow, it can take a couple of years to roll through. But it’s an inevitability. And I think you can see that in the larger companies who aren’t as highly leveraged on ad tech, for example, like Google. Ad tech is one part of its business; they’ve been quite clear that current changes, or current industry initiatives like alternative identifiers aren’t going to stand up to the regulation.
So I think ad tech is going to be forced to change over the coming years. That may be a slow shift that may take three, four years for us to get there, but it will happen. And it will ripple through every ecosystem. It’s not just going to be web, it will be app, it will be CTV, as well.
The digital age has been tough on journalism. So building an ecosystem that’s fit for the future is very much in the long term interest of publishers, as Joe points out:
Joe Root: Today, programmatic advertising is built on top of fundamental principles which undermine privacy regulation. And if we don’t solve those problems, you have an ecosystem, which is supporting 10s of billion dollars of spend every year into publisher’s pockets, which will disappear. And that puts the future of what we today called Open Web or open Internet at severe risk. It makes journalism – or the economics of journalism – potentially no longer add up.
So I think there’s a huge issue in that if we don’t solve privacy, actually, journalism becomes a very difficult industry. And it serves a really vital, fundamental role in society.
One point it’s vital to reinforce before we move on is that it is possible to have a healthy ad ecosystem that both supports publishers and protects consumers from invasive practices. Bob Hoffman is the creator of the Ad Contrarian blog and was recently a speaker at Permutive’s 2021 global summit. The following is an extract from his keynote, putting the situation bluntly:
Bob Hoffman: There’s no reason online advertising can’t be viable without spying on us. Advertising has been a profitable and effective business for decades without tracking people and spying on them.
Is the free internet reliant on advertising? Yes. Is it reliant on tracking? No.
The arguments that the tracking lobby is making to thwart changes to surveillance marketing today, that the sky will fall and the Internet will collapse, is the same argument they made against GDPR a few years ago. It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now.
Part 2: Challenges
Whether you want to look at it as a reset, a reinvention or a re-architecture, it’s inevitable that publishing’s relationship with ad tech still has some significant challenges to overcome over the next few years.
Permutive’s Joe Root interacts with a wide range of publishing companies, and says he sees a number of the same issues crop up depending on where they are in their journey:
Joe Root: The most common and frequent problem which we hear from publishers is this disintermediation from downstream advertisers. So programmatic has effectively pulled them apart from from advertisers, whether that’s agencies or brands. And because of that, a lot of that inventory is being bought in the open marketplace. As cookies disappear, there’s a lot of risk in those CPMs. And there’s a real fear that they need to move out of these these open marketplace environments, and into more direct relationships.
I think when you move towards publishers who have executed really well in that first strategy and started to build those relationships, almost certainly, the number one problem we hear is market education, is that publishers hold the keys for advertisers to kind of navigate these coming changes around privacy, and the loss of cookies and regulation. But not all agencies and brands have the full awareness of fully understand these changes, and how publishers can solve those problems.
So I think that second piece of market education definitely kicks in when publishers have really started to build that healthy business around data.
For Jana at Insider, counteracting these challenges has started with educating advertisers and helping them understand what’s happening in the landscape:
Jana Meron: We have a variety of solutions, and a lot of it has been about education, helping them understand what’s happening in the landscape. And we’ve been doing this for many years. Even before all of this where we would go in and talk about what does a publishers ad stack look like? And what does that mean? And how does all of these different pieces work together?
Because I really believe that if each side understands how the other side works, it makes it much easier for us to partner. Their expectations have been set by the industry because we enabled them to do micro targeting. So I don’t think that they have unrealistic expectations. But I think it’s very hard to go from precision marketing, to probabilistic marketing. But the reality is, they were doing probabilistic marketing long before they were doing precision marketing. So it can be done.
Aside from advertiser relationships, there’s another relationship which is vital to work on: that of the reader. Future’s Nick Flood believes that the main challenge to overcome is getting the audience to understand the value exchange. But he also thinks this has come quite a way over the past decade:
Nick Flood: I think a lot of it revolves around value exchange. So I’ve been talking a lot about this recently, and with the introduction of ad blocking as a great example, people have got very, very familiar with understanding some of the messaging that a lot of publishers started to put up, that this content that you’re reading isn’t free and cost a lot of money to produce.
I think having a bit of a better communication and conversation with your user base inspires loyalty actually, drives a lot of loyalty with customers because they understand that. It’s not commoditized and in the round, and it does cost money to produce. So there does need to be a fee for it, and how you are monetised as user obviously depends on the publisher. It could be a data player, of course, it could be a display campaign that you’re served, or it could be an affiliate link that that you click on.
Part 3: Hitting the reset button
Regulation and consumer pushback has given the industry the opportunity to hit the reset button, and as a result, there are a huge range of opportunities for savvy publishers. Digital ad spend is continuing to grow, so fears that regulation will severely hobble innovation and growth seem as yet to be unfounded. Future’s Nick Flood feels positive about the opportunity this great privacy reset gives the industry:
Nick Flood: So if you look at the arc of history and where we are, God, how many years since TCF was issued five or six maybe? It doesn’t seem like that long ago. But if you think only 10 years ago, we were still serving GIFs and JPEGs to websites. Look how far the digital ads businesses has moved on. We’re just about to enter, or have entered probably the biggest quarter in history for digital ad spend.
I think there is another 10 years of innovation, and I’m sure a rebalance, which makes me feel good about things because there needs to be a rebalance. And I think that’s started happening now and will continue to happen over the next couple of years.
Insider’s Jana Meron also sees a huge opportunity in a great privacy reset, even if it is forced through by regulation:
Jana Meron: Oh, I think it’s a huge opportunity. It’s really our opportunity as publishers, it’s an opportunity for us to take back ownership of our data. And when I say that, I mean it in the way that the capabilities of the third party cookie made it so that it devalued the publishers data.
And so what happens now is that publisher data becomes more and more valuable, because the reality is we have the relationship with the consumer. So we really know them quite well. And we can serve up content and advertising that is relevant, not creepy, and enhances their experience on the site and with the advertisers, rather than detracts from it.
Despite the murky practices of the past decade, Nick believes premium publishers will be the real winners in this new landscape. An oft-cited concern by publishers is the impact of privacy regulations on revenue, but he sees this differently in the long term:
Nick Flood: If you have a very clear policy framework, and users opt into it, and they recognise what they’re getting, you’ve got a better opportunity, and the legal right to monetise the user as well. So we will see and know everything that happened with consent strings, and has a user consented or not. In theory, you should be able to achieve high yield on open auction for those users as buyers look for them.
But also, if you think about a premium publishers’ first party strategy, having a user opted in and maybe collecting some PII on them as well, so email address and various other fields, they’re only going to give you that if they trust you, and they’re going to get a value exchange for that information.
So that really puts premium publishers like Future in a much better position because we collect 1000s of records a day undoubtedly across the business.
For some, this shift in spending is already starting. Permutive’s Joe Root is beginning to see these positive changes really take effect, to the benefit of publishers:
Joe Root: I think the thing which gives me conviction that the ecosystem has seen and is moving, is last year, we really saw that flight to publisher-owned ecosystems take place. So last year PMP spend – private marketplace spend – overtook open marketplace spend. Emarketer has a great report on that.
If you look at the underlying fundamentals of why, it’s a flight into publisher owned ecosystems, because of the safety they bring, but also because the data they bring. So in some ways, yes, I think we’ve seen a shift in spending. Ultimately, that’s what really matters.
The more we see this shift, the more important it is that publishers are ready to take advantage of it, but are also remaining flexible.
Jana has been building out Insider’s first-party data strategy for the past three years, and even in that time, the strategy has evolved:
Jana Meron: It started out as, really I wanted our data management platform to be able to help us understand what audiences people were buying when they were buying us programmatically. And the DMPs at the time, it was a very manual process. And it wasn’t something that we could take on.
Then we started to think about what else we wanted to do with the data. Understanding that the data is not necessarily one to one data, it’s cohort data. These are people who read about technology, go deeper into technology. They read about enterprise tech, they’re early adopters. These are all of the signals that we get based on people’s behaviours and actions on the site.
And we actually find that those are considerably better than your traditional demographics. And if you think about it, if I buy your product and I’m not in your demographic, do you really care?
So in practice, what does a good, futureproof first-party data strategy look like? Joe Root has some advice from working with a range of publishers:
Joe Root: So, really at its core, it starts with, what do I understand about my audience, which is now going to be hard to come across. So for a lot of publishers that lies in behavioural data, in that understanding of the user through that lens, really understanding what data assets you have, building up the audiences around that.
And then I think really critically within that is also understanding how does your audience differentiate itself? So for example, Immediate Media have these really rich audiences around BBC Good Food and Top Gear, which are really hard to find across the rest of the internet. So those audiences deeply differentiate them when they go out to agencies, when they go to brands.
So I think it starts with looking at what data do you have, what are you collecting, and over time, it’s about refining that to what really differentiates you versus the rest of the internet.
However, even for publishers who have been keeping ahead of developments and building systems and strategies that will withstand the next decade, the hard work isn’t over yet. They still have to be able to communicate what sets them apart, and why their home-grown audiences are so valuable:
Nick Flood: So if you go to any premium publisher in the UK, US or anywhere in the world, to that fact, I think everyone is having these conversations. It’s about what makes you unique as a business and how do you cut through because it’s a competitive landscape, of course. And as publishers, we need to make sure that we have something that that breaks through and isn’t just an audience segment, which everyone can do pretty much these days. But how do you build upon that?
We’ve got some great examples here in this business with the introduction of Aperture, our audience data platform, and some of the amazing stuff we can do around our eCommerce platform, Hawk and ingesting all that data into the into the targetable criteria. So it really sets ourselves apart from from other publications.
Joe also believes that publishers are well placed to take advantage of these changes. He’s identified the growing private marketplaces as a huge potential area of opportunity for publisher to earn money:
Joe Root: Today, globally, or in key European and US markets, about $14 billion of spend flows through the open marketplace, through these adtech-owned ecosystems, and about $19 billion flows through private marketplaces through publisher-owned ecosystems. And that’s been a huge shift; those publisher-owned ecosystems have grown 100x, PMP spend has grown 100x over the last nine years.
Now, the opportunity for publishers is those publisher-owned ecosystems, that private marketplace ecosystem, is growing very quickly. And it’s also replacing open marketplace. So over the next few years, you sum those up alongside growth. And there’s $30-$40 billion of ad spend, which is likely to flow through publisher-owned ecosystems.
And that’s an enormous opportunity for publishers, because that exists in a world where actually they’re the primary ones making money in that ecosystem. And that supply chain is much cleaner. So I think for publishers, there’s the opportunity to take control, and actually re-establish themselves and make digital work.
Over at Insider, Jana Meron has wasted no time taking advantage of these opportunities. Last year, they launched SÁGA, an audience-data platform which uses behavioural data of readers on their sites to build audience segments, without the need for personally identifiable information. She explained more about some of the work her team is doing:
Jana Meron: I’m super excited about the tests we’re doing around putting some data into bid requests via dealID. I’m super excited about some of the targeting options that we now have that give people something that’s very unique to market, like our SÁGA surround product, which gives somebody the ability to do 100% share of page takeover on a particular topic, or the audience of that topic. That’s a really unique offering and something that is taking off and I’m very excited to see grow.
It may not be using identifiable information, but Insider are certainly seeing results on both the advertiser and consumer sides:
Jana Meron: It’s really powerful. We’re seeing significant engagement improvements. We’ve grown revenue on first party data by 200% this year. And I know a lot of times that’s law of small numbers. But actually, it wasn’t such a small number to grow it by 200%.
And then, you know, we have 19 out of our top 20 advertisers are using SÁGA, using the data continuously, we have a very high renewal rate. So it works. It really does. It just takes a lot of education and patience.
Future also have a shiny new audience data platform, which they launched just a few months ago. Nick Flood explains more:
Nick Flood: So we just launched Aperture, which is our global first party audience data platform. So really excited to spearhead that project and get it over the line. And for the first time, we are bringing together all of Future’s assets, both from the B2B, B2C side and other areas of the business to make it available to our clients, so agencies or advertisers, to really access the level of depth and insight on our user base that they’ve not been able to do before.
Because at the end of the day, when cookies – and it is just third party cookies being deprecated from from Chrome – you’re still going to have loads of targeting capabilities. And it’s those publishers with the best first party data offerings, I think are going to be the ones that really stand out with the agencies who may be starting to pull away from some of the open auction spends that they might have been particularly used to doing.
Part 4: A sustainable advertising ecosystem fit for the future
So for publishers looking to take advantage of these opportunities, where do they start? We asked each of our experts what they would advise publishers to do, whether they’re at the start of preparing their strategies, or have established platforms.
Joe has plenty of advice, from relationship building to aligning your sales teams around this new world:
Joe Root: Really, it starts with building relationships with advertising agencies, but most importantly, being able to serve the needs which those organisations have. And publishers have the building blocks for this. Programmatic advertising is driven off the back of data. So having a strong first party data strategy is really key within that.
Also being able to articulate on the safety and the cleanliness of my environment. So publishers are typically very low in terms of fraudulent traffic. Publishers typically have very strong brand safety and viewability. So I think really pulling together what differentiates you as a publisher, and being able to tell that story becomes a starting point. And I think to support that, you need a first party data strategy in place.
You also need a sales organisation who’s aligned around that. There needs to be a recognition that first party data is now your most valuable asset. And it’s imperative that you set yourself up with the tools to safeguard that data, to safeguard that value, to ensure that you retain ownership and control over that data. And the reason why is that first party data is very quickly and rapidly becoming the new currency for advertising or digital advertising.
The choices that you as a publisher make now are going to remain the difference between solving for today’s problem, versus solving for the much bigger problem which is coming our way over the next few years.
Future’s Nick Flood is also a big believer in collaboration, especially when it comes to choosing which tools to use and how to implement them. Here’s his advice for publishers looking to make the most of the great privacy reset:
Nick Flood: Don’t do it alone. It’s a complex world. So talk to your peers. What I found particularly heartening is that everyone’s in the same boat actually. And everyone wants to learn and do the best thing for their users and business.
And absolutely every publisher I’ve ever spoken to has been absolutely up for providing guidance, or learnings, or what have you. So definitely chat to your trade bodies, or your rivals to that matter, because, believe it or not, they’ll be in exactly the same position that you are.
Value is a common theme which has come up across all three interviews. For her piece of advice, Insider’s Jana Meron believes that long-term success starts with focusing on your audience:
Jana Meron: Figure out what the value is to the consumer and focus on that and build your strategies off of what’s resonating with your consumers.
She also had some advice for publishers when it comes to choosing technology partners, which applies universally whatever the solution:
Jana Meron: I think they have to look for people who are willing to educate them, who are willing to help them train their entire staff, because what we do know about an undertaking of this sort is that it requires buy in from every piece of the organisation. And so they’re going to need to help you educate your organisation.
And you want somebody who’s thinking about not only what you can do today but what you want to be able to do in the future.
Thank you to Permutive for sponsoring this episode of Media Voices. Permutive are rebuilding data in programmatic advertising to protect privacy. As the only Audience Platform built on patented and privacy-preserving on-device technology, they enable premium advertisers and publishers to plan, build and activate cohorts — all while keeping everyone’s data safe. You can learn more about their work, case studies and resources at permutive.com.