Can Apple Shape the Next Act of Ad Buying?

March 9, 2020

This article originally appeared as an OpEd in MediaPost’s Digital News Daily section. 

Recent winds have brought uncertainty to the land of ad tech.

Marketers once took personalized advertising for granted. But consumer privacy regulations, along with the imminent fall of the cookie, have cast it into doubt, leaving the industry with an identity crisis — literally and figuratively.

Amid these challenges, advertisers, publishers and ad tech companies are convening their best minds in the hope of finding  solutions, with industry organizations championing efforts that prioritize privacy while allowing healthy monetization.

The triopoly of Google, Facebook and Amazon will continue to be top-of-mind.

But marketers operating with an eye toward the future should also keep a close eye on another tech giant that could play a part in advertising’s future direction: Apple.

Apple’s path and how we got here

Apple has been thinking about the future of advertising for a long time — more than a decade, in fact.

Most know Google as the largest player in online media, but 10 years ago, the mobile space wasn’t as settled. Just after Google bought DoubleClick to fuel its expansion as a player in display advertising, Apple engaged in a bidding war with the search giant for the mobile ad marketplace AdMob.

Google won that battle, but Apple continued to push into the advertising space by acquiring AdMob competitor Quattro Wireless and building a product called iAd, which began as an ad network for app developers. Then, as Google’s moves transformed it into a leader in display marketing, Apple went in the other direction, shuttering iAd in 2016.

In parallel, the rise of programmatic spurred the industry to focus on targeting audiences in real time. Over the next couple of years, third-party data collection proliferated to the point that it seemed nearly every ad tech company owned user information.

The landscape began to shift again following the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, culminating with data privacy regulations such as GDPR and CCPA. Apple recognized an opportunity within the chaos. Employing the excellent marketing that we’ve come to expect, it positioned itself as the face of privacy in big tech.

What this could mean for digital advertising 

But despite its public stance on user privacy, Apple has by no means abandoned advertising as a source of revenue.

While the privacy message succeeds in part due to user sentiment against targeted ads, advertisers can make targeted ad buys through Apple — for instance, buys in Apple News based on behavioral data like app download history.

Meanwhile, consolidation is shrinking marketers’ once-abundant options for ad-tech partners down to a few big players. For every success story like The Trade Desk, there are companies like AppNexus, which was acquired by AT&T, and Eyeview, which closed its doors.

The phase-out of cookies will also make quality audience targeting harder to find.

Google, Facebook and Amazon will remain important due to their troves of first-party data, but it will be tougher to squeeze performance out of the independent world amid issues like the universal tracking ID.

These struggles create room for another player, and Apple is the ideal candidate, thanks to under-used assets like Safari.

Effective performance marketers know that, more than ever, the keys to successful media partnerships are unique data or unique inventory. Apple has both.

What could this mean for the future of digital ad buying? Let’s start with Safari.

Apple’s popular browser has long restricted targeting and reporting with its Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP), which has resulted in many performance advertisers struggling to justify the investment and ultimately shifting to competitors like Chrome.

Add to that the industry’s concern about reverting to contextual targeting and click-through conversions, and Apple is in prime position to prove the positive impact Safari can make on a brand’s business.

What if Apple were to introduce the ability to target an ad on Apple Watch, based on viewership data from Apple TV, then report on the conversion that takes place in Safari? That wouldn’t mean full visibility into every step, of course. The core of Apple’s privacy message is data protection; they won’t share your info with anyone else. But in a world of walled gardens, advertisers are already learning how to qualify the impact of platforms that don’t communicate. For example, the lack of external impression tracking in Facebook hasn’t hindered its continued growth.

Right now, Apple is (at least ostensibly) the champion of consumers, fighting against those in ad tech who have lightly regarded personal rights across the web. That positioning won’t change, as their dominance still mostly resides in the purchase of iPhones. But by building out a more coherent ad tech product, they could also carve themselves a niche as the fourth player in today’s digital marketing triopoly. 

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