Big tech and government are rewriting the rules of digital marketing – Business Insider

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  • Mike Shields, the former advertising editor for Business Insider who’s now CEO of Shields Strategic Consulting, warns that big tech and the government are kneecapping digital marketing by promoting consumer privacy.
  • The less access advertisers have to data, the less likely they can do the targeted, personalized marketing so many have hoped to achieve.
  • “The foundation of 15 years of groundwork in digital advertising is being undone,” JT Batson, CEO and founder of the media software firm HudsonMX, told Business Insider. 
  • Shields argues it’s not clear CMOs saw this coming — but The California Consumer Privacy Act and Google phasing cookies out of Chrome are just a couple examples of how this could seriously impact the industry.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If there’s anything folks in the ad industry have been dead certain about over the last 20 years or so, it’s that sometime very, very soon, we’re all going to be able to reach the right person with the right ad at exactly the right time.

No brand was going to waste money on mass marketing anymore because the internet would be all about “one-to-one” marketing. 

Two decades into that “revolution,” I’m starting to wonder if one-to-one is DOA.

In fact, there’s a growing undercurrent of worry among insiders that just at the moment when the marketing industry is racing toward becoming data driven, automated, and as scientific as possible, it’s getting completely kneecapped by the biggest companies in tech, along with lawmakers.

And it’s not clear that CMOs see it coming.

Consider this recent string of hard-to-process news:

That’s a lot of change all at once. “The foundation of 15 years of groundwork in digital advertising is being undone,” said JT Batson, CEO and founder of the media software firm HudsonMX. 

From his view, “tons of people in this business have not embraced the reality of what this means because the pain hasn’t been felt,” he said. “But it’s seismic.”

Big tech is rewriting the rules —  but for who?

Where is this seismic pain coming from? Well, think of it this way: Three of the most powerful entities in the world — Apple, Google, and to a lesser extent the US government — are unilaterally rewriting the rules of the internet. They’re all doing this ostensibly from a pro-consumer perspective. But of course they have their own self-interest well in mind.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder whether the marketing industry is so fixated on Facebook ad bans or whether Trump is going to fire Fauci to really wrap its head around what’s coming.

“It’s fundamentally changing the infrastructure or components of digital advertising,” said Russell Nuzzo, global head of attribution and marketing technologies at WPP’s consulting division GainTheory. “I’m not sure anyone is dissecting what this means for all the finer details of measurement and tracking just yet.” 

Measurement and tracking are oxygen to digital advertising. That’s why the cumulative effect of all these consumer-tracking chokepoints is potentially massively disruptive. As in:

  • Maybe we’re never going to be able to track people across every device and platform they use.
  • Maybe all these “device graphs” will never materialize.
  • Maybe we’re never going to be able to zap everyone a personalized message wherever they go.
  • It’s doubtful that we’ll ever be able to assign a value to every single interaction with a brand and stitch together what it all means and how exactly to spend every dime.

Of course, in my mind, it’s always been a fantasy that brands will somehow be able to map out exactly why I bought those Nikes on Was my decision 13% driven by that banner I saw five days ago, and 29% because of the email offer in my inbox? Or was it the Michael Jordan ad I saw 30 years ago? Or was I emotionally shopping during COVID-19 lockdown?

Marketing’s future may be the past

The models marketers have long used to justify their spending have always been flawed — but they provided something to stand on. What happens to Marketing Moneyball now?

“We’re going back to 1986,” said Sam Bloom, CEO at Camelot Strategic Marketing & Media. “There’s an Asteroid coming, and a lot of us are talking about why it’s coming instead of what to do about it.”

Does that mean we go back to targeting men with a few print ads in GQ? For a good part of the digital ad world, that maybe not be far from the truth. 

“The future is going to look a lot like the past,” said Brian O’Kelley, an ad tech pioneer who sold AppNexus to AT&T in 2018. “That means less personalization, more traditional branding, plus a direct response layer that is permissioned from marketers you have relationships with.”

Of course, most people only desire so many brand relationships. For the majority of the industry, there will be less directly collected data to work with overall, and lots more extrapolating and projecting from the data we do have. In this new world, “[as a brand] you can see less and less,” said Merkle CTO Peter Randazzo on a recent podcast. “Big platforms can see more.”

Of course, the walled gardens win. Are you surprised? Everyone I talked to said the same thing. Google and Facebook can live without cookies or mobile IDs or whatever, since they have people’s email addresses and willingly shared information and interests. 

You may not be able to do attribution across every single media outlet in the universe, but you can figure out which ads drove sales within Facebook on Instagram just fine. This will likely be true the more gardens that emerge, from Amazon to Hulu to Snap to any publisher people share personal information with.

So as marketing data gets squeezed, brands that aspire to be sophisticated with their data will be stuck “using whatever tool Google has or Hulu has,” Nuzzo said.

In that world, “you’ll just have to trust Facebook,” Bloom said.

What could go wrong there?

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This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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